Monday, August 11, 2014

Joseph, His Brothers (and Tissot) in Egypt

God meant it for good. That's what Joseph tells his brothers in Egypt. They came by different routes, of course, and set off on the journey from different impulses. Joseph has traveled there with the caravan of traders to whom his brothers sold him. The brothers have traveled to Egypt at the direction of their father in hopes of buying grain. The Bible says it's Egypt, but artists have, at times, seemed unable to help themselves. Their "Egypt" looks remarkably like France or Flanders or a Greco-Roman temple. For those artists, every Biblical subject was painted in their own time, using their own architecture and their own clothing styles.

At the other end of the spectrum is French artist Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902). Tissot traveled to the Near East several times between 1877 and 1902, when his energy was consumed with paintings for, first, a Life of Christ and then with illustrating the Hebrew Bible. Criticized as being "too photographic", Tissot did indeed photograph settings, buildings and landscapes, documenting the places and details he would need when he was back in his studio painting.

For the painting, see: http://thejewishmuseum.org/collection/26324-joseph-and-his-brethren-welcomed-by-pharaoh

While his work is by no means fully authentic, elements of Tissot's paintings can be identified with places in Egypt. In "Joseph and His Brothers Welcomed by Pharaoh" (above, right), the clerestory windows in the painting are direct quotations from the Karnak Hypostyle Hall in the Karnak temple complex (above, left).

The Jewish Museum, NYC, has a collection of Tissot paintings, including his version of the episode where Joseph announces his identity to his brothers. Under Tissot's brush, Egypt is vividly colored and patterned, distinctly different from the more subdued garments worn by Joseph's brothers. No doubt the brothers felt somewhat out of place even before Joseph makes the grand gesture in this painting. Though the architectural setting has not been specifically identified, the repetition of columns, windows and panels provides a geometric background for the organic forms of Jacob's sons. 

http://thejewishmuseum.org/collection/26323-joseph-maketh-himself-known-to-his-brethren

The columns seem more slender than most Egyptian columns (refer to the drawing above), but they echo the rather willowy figure of Joseph whose brothers do, in this moment, bow down to him as he dreamed long ago.

For a surprising expression of Egypt in church architecture, see the Art&Faith Matters Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/artfaithmatters

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