Joseph and his Brothers

by Nikolaus Knüpfer

In this painting, the artist has depicted a scene from the book of Genesis: Joseph receiving his brothers who have come to plead at his feet. It is part of a rags to riches story that starts in the fields of Canaan. Joseph’s brothers resent their father’s favourite son. They even discuss killing him, but in order not to have the guilt of his death on their hands they throw him into a pit and then sell him to passing traders. They take his multicoloured coat, cover it in goat’s blood and tell Jacob, their father, that his beloved son was killed by wild animals. Meanwhile, Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt. He serves in the house of court functionary Potiphar, whose wife tries to seduce him. Joseph refuses her advances. In revenge she accuses Jospeh and has him thrown in jail, where he makes a name for himself by interpreting dreams. This comes to Pharaoh’s attention and Joseph interprets his dream of seven fat cows and seven thin, and seven fat ears of corn and seven thin, as a portent of famine. Pharaoh frees him and appoints him overseer of Egypt’s granaries, to prepare for the seven years of famine which will ravage the land and the surrounding countries.

Here Joseph is shown granting an audience to his brothers, who have come to Egypt imploring to be able to purchase grain, never imagining that the opulently attired governor to whom they are humbly addressing their request is their own brother. One of the brothers on the left is showing his money: they have not come as beggars, they have come to buy. On the stairs to the right, a man is carrying a sack of grain. At the foot of the stairs, a clerk is keeping the accounts. The story ends well. After testing his brothers, Joseph reveals his identity and generously forgives them.

Nikolaus Knüpfer (1603-1655) was a past master at depicting biblical stories. He drew inspiration from the Dutch theatre of the seventeenth century, a vibrant amateur tradition. That is apparent from the way his compositions imitate stage productions, with a raised platform on which the star of the show addresses the audience. Knüpfer, originally from Germany, settled in Utrecht in 1630, there he became a pupil of Abraham Bloemaert. It is possible that Knüpfer may later have been a teacher of Jan Steen. His warm colours and his dramatic chiaroscuro are reminiscent of early works by Rembrandt.