The Old Testament story of Joseph fueled the imagination of Dutch artists, not only for the marvelous exploits of the young leader, but also for the jealousies, deceits and betrayals that mark the complex narrative of his life.1 The cause of many of those jealousies was the coat of many colors that his father, Jacob, had presented to him as a sign that he was the favored son. The tragic consequences, when Joseph’s brothers turned against him, are described in Genesis 37:12–35. When Joseph, having been sent by his father to report on the status of his brothers who were herding sheep, found them in the land of Dothan, his brethren conspired to kill him. However, Reuben, one of the brothers, dissuaded them from committing fratricide and, instead, they threw Joseph into a pit. Although Reuben intended to rescue Joseph and return him to his father, Joseph was taken to Egypt after the others sold him to passing Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver. Reuben, upon discovering that Joseph was missing, then conspired with his brothers to deceive Jacob into believing that Joseph had been eaten by a wild beast. To feign his death they dipped Joseph’s coat in the blood of a goat, which they then took to the aged patriarch. Seeing the bloody coat, Jacob tore his garments in grief, donned sackcloth, and, taking no comfort in his family’s consolations, mourned Joseph’s loss.
In this dramatic visualization of the story, one feels the full horror of the moment Jacob sees the bloody coat held up before him, and can almost hear Jacob’s anguished cry piercing through the late afternoon darkness. His flailing arms and legs reveal an inconsolable man devastated by the dreadful news that a wild beast has killed his favorite son. The biblical text implies that Reuben, presumably the tall gesticulating shepherd standing just behind the brother holding the bloody coat, was the spokesman for the brothers. Other family members, including a praying man in the lower left, try to support Jacob physically and emotionally, but to no avail. Two dogs, one drawn to the blood on the cloak and one to the aged patriarch, reinforce the drama of the story. Other figures, curious about the uproar but not daring to come too close, congregate near the arched entranceway of the courtyard.
Over the course of the seventeenth century, a number of Dutch artists depicted this biblical story of betrayal and deceit, beginning with Jan Pynas (1581–1631), who executed his large panel painting Jacob Shown Joseph’s Bloody Coat in 1618 (fig 1). Pynas likewise poignantly depicted an inconsolable Jacob grieving over the bloody coat, surrounded by caring members of his family. Jan Lievens (1607–74) must have known Pynas’s forceful representation of this scene when he depicted this subject in a large painting in the mid 1640s (fig 2). As in Pynas’s image, Jacob, having been shown the bloody cloak, sits with crossed arms and refuses to be comforted by his family. Lievens intensified the dramatic moment by bringing the action closer to the viewer and eliminating compositional elements that Pynas had included to place the scene within a larger narrative framework. Lievens also altered Jacob’s posture, making it more rigid, and depicted him with his eyes closed, signaling that he has hardened his heart to the entreaties of those around him.
Joost van den Vondel expressly cited Pynas’s painting as a source of inspiration for his tragedy Joseph in Dothan, published in 1640. In his introduction to the play, Van den Vondel wrote that “in the closing [passages] of this work, [we] have tried to emulate with words, as far as we can, the painter’s colors, drawings, and passions.”2 The passions Van den Vondel was able to invoke are evident in the concerns of Jacob’s eldest son, Reuben, who, imagining how the scene would unfold when Jacob was shown the bloody coat, mused:
Methinks I see with what a piteous gesture
He throws up his arms and sinks backwards,
His head bare; his whole countenance assuming
The nature of a corpse: the maidens, children, youths,
Our women, mothers, and th’entire household
Throng in at his lament: the little Benjamin,
Standing at his feet, at the weeping of the mothers,
Weeps unaware at the loss of his trusty brother.3
Van den Vondel’s play was a huge success and was shown numerous times at the Amsterdam Schouwburg during the 1640s and 1650s,4 and the play inspired some of the varied depictions of this story that Amsterdam artists made during these years.5 The most theatrical of these paintings, the Leiden Collection work is an almost verbatim portrayal of Reuben’s vision of the distraught Jacob throwing up his arms in despair while his household gathers to support him in his misery, and it seems probable that Van den Vondel’s play had a huge impact on its character. The many associations between the painting and the play suggest that the painting dates from the early 1650s, when the play was at the height of its popularity.
This large and impressive canvas was long thought to have been painted by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69), but this attribution has not been upheld for a number of years. Most recently, Werner Sumowski has proposed that the painting was executed in the mid- to late 1660s by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621–74), largely on the basis of similarities that exist between it and Van den Eeckhout’s drawing of the same subject in the Louvre (fig 3).6 He concluded that the drawing, which he dates to the mid- to late 1660s, was a preliminary study for the painting.7
The striking similarities between the drawing and the painting initially seem to substantiate Sumowski’s conclusion. In each work the distraught Jacob lies at the lower right with his arms spread wide as family members try to comfort him, while in the immediate background a large architectural structure with an arched opening frames a view into the distance. Nevertheless, sufficient differences exist between the two works—for example, in the angle of Jacob’s outthrust arms, and the number and disposition of the figures populating the scene—to suggest that the drawing was an independent creation only loosely connected to the painting.
A date in the mid- to late 1660s does not accord with the stylistic character of Van den Eeckhout’s paintings at that stage of his career. In the 1660s, Van den Eeckhout preferred quieter subjects, presenting Old Testament narratives in an understated manner rather than emphatically stressing the drama, as in this work. In his later works he modeled his figures quite carefully and gave his scenes added pictorial interest by articulating costume details, including the textures of their materials; such characteristics are not evident in the rough modeling seen here.
The relationship between the drawing and this painting may be explained by Van den Eeckhout’s approach to creating his series of drawings on the life of Joseph: he looked to earlier depictions of the life of Joseph for inspiration and freely adapted them when creating his designs. For example, his drawing Joseph Telling His Dreams from that series is freely based on Rembrandt’s 1638 etching of the same subject.8 The relationship of Van den Eeckhout’s drawing Jacob Shown Joseph’s Bloody Coat to the Leiden Collection painting must be understood in a similar fashion. This painting was probably the source of inspiration for Van den Eeckhout’s drawing.
The question then remains whether Jacob Shown Joseph’s Bloody Coat is consistent with Van den Eeckhout’s style of painting from the 1650s. The story of Joseph intrigued Van den Eeckhout throughout his career, and he even made a series of drawings of the life of Joseph in the early 1640s.9 Among the many Old Testament narratives he painted in the 1640s and 1650s, moreover, are a number that depict episodes from the life of Joseph. He executed these paintings in a rough, expressive manner that he must have learned when studying with Rembrandt in the late 1630s. Generally, Van den Eeckhout preferred a rather dark, expansive setting for his scenes, and he accented his figures with dramatically focused light effects and rich colors, much as in the present painting. Nevertheless, the manner in which the Leiden Collection painting is executed differs fundamentally from these works. The blocky, somewhat inelegant forms of the figures and the splotchy brushwork used to model them, where the artist seems to have roughly dabbed his paint onto the canvas without modulating the planes of color, differ from the more fluid brushwork that characterizes Van den Eeckhout’s style of painting.
Unfortunately, an alternative attribution for this painting has yet to be found. Although the dramatic focus of the composition, the chiaroscuro effects, and the rough brushwork are all broadly related to works being produced by artists working within Rembrandt’s orbit around mid-century—including Willem Drost (1633–59), Carel Fabritius (1622–54), Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627–78), Jan Lievens, Nicolaes Maes (1634–93), Constantijn van Renesse (1626–80), and Jan Victors (1619–after 1676)—no precise comparable examples have thus far been identified. Until such such works appear, it seems appropriate to label this expressive and emotionally charged painting as “Circle of Rembrandt,” and to date it to the early 1650s.