WORKSHOP OF BONIFAZIO (OR BONIFACIO) DE’ PITATI,
called BONIFAZIO VERONESE(Verona 1487 – 1553 Venice),
possibly AnTONIO PALMA (Venice, ca. 1510-1575)

 

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

 

Oil on canvas

10 ½ x 35 inches (26.7 x 88.9 cm)

Provenance:   

Palazzo Pisani at San Stefano, Venice
Mrs. F. Craighead (possibly Mrs. Fay Stinson Craighead, Evansville, Indiana)
Sale, Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, June 7, 1978, lot 310, for $7500, as Bonifazio Veronese
Collection Daniel M. Friedenberg, New York (until 2011); by descent to:
Russell Friedenberg (until 2014)

 

Literature:      

Pietro Edwards, inventory of the Palazzo Pisani, Venice, no. 10: “Giuseppe che fugge dalla moglie di Pitifarre” by Bonifacio Veronese; as published by G. Pavanello, Gli Inventari di Pietro Edwards nella Biblioteca del Seminario Patriarcale di Venezia, Venice 2006, pp. 132, 140.

Philip Cottrell and Peter Humfrey, Bonifacio de' Pitati, (forthcoming, 2015), cat. no. 166h.

The present painting formed part of a room decoration, probably painted for the Pisani family and recorded in the Palazzo Pisani in Campo Santo Stefano, Venice, in 1802.  In their forthcoming monograph on Bonifazio Veronese, Philip Cottrell and Peter Humfrey have associated nine like-sized canvases with the project, including Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife.  One of these, Mucius Scaevola before Lars Porsena, is in the Pinacoteca Egidio Martini at Ca’Rezzonico in Venice, while the whereabouts of the remaining seven, is at present unknown, although they remained together with the present work until the 1970s.  Humfrey and Cottrell date these paintings ca. 1545-50 and believe they were painted by an individual hand active in Bonifazio’s workshop, whom they suggest is identifiable with Antonio Palma, the nephew of Palma il Vecchio, Bonifazio’s teacher.

 

The painting dramatically illustrates the Biblical tale of Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife.  As related in Genesis, Joseph, when captive in Egypt, had been sold to Potiphar, the captain of the Pharaoh’s Guard, in whose house he lived and whom he served as a trusted majordomo.  Potiphar’s unnamed wife repeatedly attempted to seduce the handsome Joseph, who remained loyal to his master.  One day while alone in the house with Joseph, “she caught him by his garment, saying, Lie with me: and he left his garment in her hand, and fled.” (Genesis 39:15) So rejected, she then accused Joseph of attempted rape, brandishing the cloak he had abandoned as evidence against him.  Potiphar then apprehended Joseph and imprisoned him.

 

The principal part of the composition depicts Potiphar’s wife, seated on her large bed, desperately reaching for Joseph and holding the red cloak that Joseph, his arms outstretched in alarm, had draped across him.  Just outside to the right, through an open portico, the turbaned Potiphar is seen directing the accused Joseph to prison.  He is still attired in his blue garment, but his shoulders are now slumped in resignation as he is being marched by two guards towards the prison, the door to which a helmeted jailer is opening with a key. The story is brilliantly, almost cinematically told with clarity and directness.

 

Prof. Peter Humfrey has kindly shared the following catalogue entry on the series from his forthcoming monograph on Bonifazio, co-authored with Philip Cottrell, given in edited form below.


 Cat. no. 166 Nine Scenes with Poetic, Historical and Old Testament Subjects:

 

a. Aeneas and Anchises fleeing Troy

b. The Arrival of Aeneas in Carthage (?)

c. Aeneas in the Palace of Dido

d. The Departure of Aeneas from Carthage

e. Coriolanus embracing his Mother

f. The Flight of Cloelia

g. Cimon and Iphigenia

h. Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife

Eight canvases, 26.7 x 89 cm

c. 1545-50

Whereabouts Unknown (166a-g); with Robert Simon, New York (166h)

i. Mucius Scaevola before Lars Porsena

Canvas, 28 x 89 cm

c. 1545-50

Pinacoteca Egidio Martini, Ca’ Rezzonico, Venice, no. 20

 

Although the subjects of the nine canvases are based on very disparate literary sources (Virgil, Livy, Boccaccio, the Old Testament), the earliest modern mention of the first eight (a-h), in the Fototeca Federico Zeri, records that before 1978 they were all in the collection of Mrs F. Craighead (possibly Mrs. Fay Stinson Craighead of Evansville, Indiana). The fact that they are closely similar in style and of identical dimensions suggests that they were always meant as a group; and in fact, paintings with subjects corresponding to seven of the eight appear in an inventory of works of art at Palazzo Pisani at Santo Stefano, Venice, drawn up by the government inspector Pietro Edwards in 1809 (for which see Pavanello 2006, pp. 132-4). It is true that while five of these are attributed to Bonifacio, the other two are attributed by Edwards to Schiavone (but a confusion between the two in this area of their activity has often persisted to the present day); and while three of the paintings are valued by him at 44 lire, the other four are valued at 33 (whereas one might expect the same valuation of paintings of the identical dimensions). Yet the correspondence of the heterogenous subjects to those that still formed a group in the 1970s would otherwise be too much of a coincidence; and it is reasonable to conclude that the same seven, and probably also the same eight, belonged to the patrician Pisani family in the eighteenth century, and may indeed have originally commissioned by them.

 

In 1978 six of the group (b, d-h) were presented for sale at Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York (7.6.78, lots 305-10); it remains unclear, however, whether at this date the other two (a. c) were still in the possession of Mrs Craighead, or whether she had already sold them separately. After the 1978 sale, the Cimon and the Potiphar’s Wife were also detached from the group: the first reappeared at Christie’s in 1982 (9.7.82 lot 49, as ‘Diana and Actaeon’; the second was acquired by Daniel Friedenberg, New York. The other four ( b, d-f), appeared on the art market in Venice by 1980, and were published by Sgarbi (Vittorio Sgarbi, “Giovanni De Mio, Bonifacio de' Pitati, Lamberto Sustris: indicazioni sul primo tempo del manierismo nel Veneto,” Arte Veneta, 1981, pp. 52-61.), who called them all the Story of Aeneas, without specifying the actual scene represented. As pointed out by Simonetti (S. Simonetti, “Profilo di Bonifacio de' Pitati,” Saggi e memorie di storia dell'arte, 1986, pp. 111-112), however, two of this four represent scenes from Livy’s history of Rome.

 

Yet the subjects of four of the eight canvases of the original group were, in fact, drawn from Virgil’s Aeneid, and may be identified as follows. 166a: Aeneas, together with his young son Ascanius (Iulus), escapes from the conflagration of Troy, carrying his aged father Anchises on his back (from Book II). 166b: This subject is the most difficult to identify, but the suggestion by Simonetti that the couple in the chariot are Dido and Aeneas as he arrives in Carthage (rather than Jason and Medea, as indicated in the 1978 sale catalogue) is plausible. 166c: While Dido and Aeneas, with Ascanius, dine in her palace, he tells the story of his travels from Troy to Carthage (another version of this subject, formerly in the Burlet collection in Berlin, was published by Vertova 1972, p. 177). 166d: Aeneas departs from Carthage with Ascanius carrying his household gods (the penates; a detail spelt out in the Pisani inventory) (from Book IV).

 

Of the two scenes from Roman history, 166e is taken from Livy (II.xl.3-10; see also Plutarch, Lives of Alcibiades and Coriolanus, xxiv-vi, 34-6) and depicts the women of Rome, including Coriolanus’s mother and sister, pleading with the banished general not to destroy the city and its inhabitants. 166f shows the Roman virgin Cloelia, who had been taken hostage by the Etruscan general Lars Porsena, courageously escaping on a horse across the Tiber with a companion (Livy II. xiii. 6-9). Because of their different literary sources, Simonetti argued that this pair did not originally belong to the same series as the two Aeneas scenes published by Sgarbi, and she proposed to add to these the triumphal scene formerly in Palazzo Barbaro Curtis (cat. 192), entitling it the Triumph of Aeneas. But this last work is of a different size and shape to the present group, it has a different provenance, and the motif of the horses and chariot too literally repeats that of the Arrival of Aeneas.

 

Of the final two in the group, 166g has its literary source in Boccaccio’s Decameron, and represents a variation on Bonifacio’s earlier representation of the story of Cimon and Iphigenia, formerly in the Hirsch Collection (cat. 99; see also cat. 192b). By contrast 166h is from the story of Joseph in Genesis 39: 7-20, when the wife of the captain on Pharoah’s guard, Potiphar, vainly tries to seduce him, and then publicly accuses him of trying to violate her, with the result that he is carried off to prison on her husband‘s orders.

 

Rutherglen (Susannah Kathlee Rutherglen, “Ornamental Paintings of the Venetian Renaissance, unpub. Ph.D. diss. [Princeton University 2012] p. 344), pointed to the appropriateness of the subjects of the four canvases published by Sgarbi (b, d-f), with their emphasis on family, lineage and virtue of personal conduct, to the decoration of a domestic interior. This is equally true of the other four, not known to her. She further suggested that the canavases were not furniture decorations, but formed part of a continuous frieze below the cornice of a room. The fact that there survive not four in the series, but at least eight makes this suggestion even more plausible; and if there were originally even more, with perhaps more scenes from Roman history and the Old Testament, now lost or unrecognised, the present disparity of literary sources may have been less troubling.

 

Although Sgarbi dated the four canvases to c. 1540 and Simonetti to c. 1540-2, a slightly later date, c. 1545-50, close to the Continence of Scipio in Boston (cat. 163) and the Raising of Lazarus in the Louvre (cat. 149), seems more likely. The Arrival of Aeneas in Carthage (?) (166b) would then postdate Lambert Sustris’s Way to Calvary of c. 1545 (Brera, Milan), in which urgent, Mannerist figures similarly process on a diagonal into depth, while it would precede by a few years the more complicated variant, perhaps by Antonio Palma, from Palazzo Barbaro Curtis. Also attributable to Antonio are two large-scale variants of the Coriolanus: one in the collection of the Marquess of Exeter, Burghley House (no. 340) (151 x 288 cm), of c. 1550-60; and another, almost certainly later, presented for sale at Christie’s in 1993 (23.4.93 lot 47; 180.3 x 297.8 cm).

 

Two candidates may be advanced here as possibly also belonging to the group. The first, included here as 166i, is the Mucius Scaevola before Lars Porsena from the Egidio Martini collection (Egidio Martini, Pittura veneta e altra italiana dal XV al XIX secolo, Rimini 1992, p. 60; idem., Pinacoteca Egidio Martini a Ca' Rezzonico, Venice 2002, p. 56). Not only is this canvas of almost exactly the same dimensions as the present eight, but a picture of this subject by Bonifacio is recorded in the same Pisani inventory. The subject is closely linked to that of the Cloelia (166f), and with its elongated, boneless figures, the picture is also consistent in style with the other scenes. The subject (from Livy II. xii.12-13) concerns the extraordinary courage of the Roman nobleman Mucius, who when captured by the Etruscan king Lars Porsena, thrust his hand into the flame on an altar to demonstrate his resistance to physical suffering. In providing a moral exemplar, this subject may be compared to that of the Coriolanus as well as of the Cloelia. It is also true, however, that the Martini picture was certainly not the only version of the subject painted by the master or one of his assistants; another, closely related in composition and formerly in the collection of Mrs Julius Weitzner, New York, is illustrated by Berenson (1957, fig. 1145). Although regarded by Berenson and Sgarbi (1981, p. 55) as autograph, the ex-Weitzner version may be attributed rather to Antonio Palma, and dated somewhat later than the Martini picture.

 

The other possible candidate is the Judith returning with the Head of Holofernes (cat. 191). According to the Fototeca Zeri, it too was in the collection of Mrs F.Craighead; and like six of the present group, it was presented for sale at Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, in 1978 (7.6.78 lot 302). It is somewhat smaller in size (26 x 51 cm), but it is possible that it has been cut down, and that the distant encampment on the right originally extended to include Judith in the tent of Holofernes. In that case, the subject would nicely complement both the Cloelia and the Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife. There is no mention of any Judith, however, in the Pisani inventory of 1802, and in this case it seems more likely that the picture belonged to a different, perhaps slightly later series.