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Joseph Sold by His Brothers

Nationalgalerie, Berlin


Cordula Grewe notes the influence of Raphael on Overbeck’s Joseph Sold by His Brothers :

“As so often in Nazarene art, Raphael was a key inspiration. His so-called ‘Bible,’ a series of epic miniatures executed by students in the Vatican loggia between 1513 and 1519, was the principal source for Overbeck. His composition The Sale of Joseph adapts the basic structure of the loggia scene, although in laterally reversed form, and many of its details. Yet when it came to the young Joseph, Overbeck suddenly turned to a different part of the Vatican cycle, Christ’s Baptism, modeling his figure of Joseph after Raphael’s depiction of Jesus as he is baptized by St John….Overbeck thus made Joseph the visual mirror image of his biblical antitype. The transformation is subtle and effective: where Christ bows in a lordly manner to receive the baptismal water, the same posed becomes a hunched posture in Joseph’s case, expressing the sorrow of a boy sold into slavery. Similarly, Christ’s gently parted stance turns into the hesitant step toward an unknown future, as the gesture of prayer is transformed into a motion of sad farewell. Despite these subtle variations, Overbeck is able to preserve the basic pattern of his model. Via art historical quotation, the Lucasbruder [Nazarene] thus infused his Sale of Joseph with a strong and long-established typology, which remains, however, hidden to the untutored.”

Cordula Grewe, Painting the Sacred in the Age of Romanticism (Burlington, VT-Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 53-4.

Mitchell B. Frank suggests a sociological context for understanding why the Nazarene's chose the story of Joseph for the Bartholdy commission: 
"What has hardly been discussed is the story itself, with its theme of brotherhood versus the larger world, and its importance for the artists themselves. In the first scene, painted by Overbeck, Joseph is sold by his brothers. The old Ishmaelite (with white beard, red dress and white cloak) in the center of the composition is the dividing line between the world within and without the Brotherhood. With the exchange of Joseph for money, he is expelled from his blood brotherhood and becomes a commodity in a foreign world. In this world, Joseph is valued only in terms of the self-interest of others. When Potiphar's wife covets Joseph, as depicted in [Philip] Veit's fresco, he is esteemed for his beauty. In the scene in jail, as painted by [Wilhelm von] Schadow, the winemaker and baker value Joseph for his ability to interpret dreams....In the final scene also by Cornelius, Joseph is reconciled with his brothers, but only after he tests them to make certain that they will not treat Benjamin, the youngest brother, as a commodity. When they pass the test, Joseph knows that they have changed in that they now understand the true meaning of brotherhood....In the Bartholdy frescoes, the artists of the Lukasbund continue to espouse the idea of an enclosed community or Gemeinschaft in contrast to the Gesellschaft of the world at large." 

Mitchell B. Frank, "The Nazarene Gemeinshaft: Overbeck and Cornelius," Artistic Brotherhoods in the Nineteenth Century, Laura Morowitz and William Vaughan, eds. (London: Ashgate, 2000), 59-61.

Same Subject by Other Artists:

Damiano Mascagni, Joseph Sold into Slavery by His Brothers, 1602

Joseph Maffei, Joseph Sold by His Brothers, 1657 (San Diego Museum of Art)

Balthasar Beschey, Joseph Sold by His Brothers, 1744 (Royal Museum of Fine Art, Antwerp)

Karoly Ferenczy, Joseph Sold into Slavery by His Brothers, 1900 (National Gallery of Hungary, Budapest)

About the Artist

Born: Lübeck, 3 July 1789
Died: Rome, 12 November 1869
Nationality: German