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Joseph Interpreting Pharaoh's Dreams

Gerard Hoet I

* 1648 in Zaltbommel † 1733 in The Hague

Pen and brown ink, grey wash. Framing lines in brown ink. Size of sheet: 28.8 x 40.7 cm.

Laid down. Two areas excised by the artist (upper left and far right) and redrawn sections carefully integrated. Inscribed on the backing sheet: ‘Joseph explique les songes à Putiphar’

Writing in 1760, Jean-Baptiste Descamps praised Hoet as ‘sans contredit, un des plus précieux Peintres d’Hollande’, whose drawings possessed a ‘beau natural’ and a ‘talent décidé’.[1] Painter, etcher and mezzotint-engraver of the Dutch Golden Age, Hoet worked extensively in his native country as well as in Paris and Brussels. In 1697 he founded a drawing academy in Utrecht, and was later elected Deacon of the Guild of St Luke.

      This drawing shows Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams (Genesis XLI, 1-30): first that of the seven cows, ‘attractive and plump’ emerging from the Nile to graze, only to be devoured by seven others, ‘ugly and thin’. Second, that of seven ears of grain ‘plump and good’, growing on a single stalk, contaminated by seven ears that sprouted ‘thin and blighted’. With the wise men and magicians of Egypt confounded, Pharaoh summoned Joseph. Dragged from his pit, shaved and clothed, he revealed God’s will: that seven years of famine would follow seven of abundance.

      Hoet has elaborated on Gianfrancesco Penni’s fresco in the Vatican Logge after Raphael’s design, which he most likely knew from Orazio Borgianni’s etching of 1615.[2] The narrative of his composition is crystal clear, with the dreams illustrated in spheres hovering above the scene. To the left a pair of bewildered magicians are deep in discussion; to the right is Joseph, clean shaven and clothed in accordance with the Biblical account, and behind him stands his master, the Captain of the Guard.

      The considerable size of the sheet is consistent with that of Hoet’s drawings, and this example is extremely rare in that it underwent two revisions. They were painstakingly integrated so as to preserve the greater part of a carefully drawn composition. Hoet excised sections of the sheet and redrew them on identical paper. Having silhouetted them to match precisely the missing sections he then spliced them into the sheet – like a virtual jigsaw – with such care that even the chainlines match. In the upper section Hoet redrew the canopy, the overhanging tree and the medallion illustrating Pharaoh’s second dream. To the right he inserted the Figura serpentinata of the Captain along with the tree behind him and the lower section of the obelisk. The inserts meander around the heads of the magicians, that of Pharaoh, and the sinuous profile of Joseph’s drapery and raised arm.

      The fact that prominent gestures are left-handed – that of Pharaoh resting his chin and of the Captain holding his spear – confirms this is a reverse study for a print. Moreover, an eventual mirror image of the drawing would show the dreams in their correct sequence: first the seven cows, then the seven ears of grain.

      The sheet’s dimensions correspond with those of the double-page horizontal format prints (approximately 300 x 410 mm) in the La Haye Bible, published in The Hague in 1728 and extensively illustrated with numerous engravings after Hoet’s designs.[3] The meticulous execution suggests this drawing represents an early proposal for the corresponding illustration, which was ultimately engraved in vertical format (Fig. 2).[4] This presumably resulted from an editorial decision to reserve the double-page illustrations for more dramatic scenes like the Crossing of the Red Sea and Moses on Mount Sinai.[5]

      Ultimately the engraving underwent several modifications. Hoet gave the composition a more contemporary feel, eradicating the archetypal Italianate Mannerist figure in armour and the overt references to Raphael; the cows and ears of grain now merge more naturalistically into the distance. In translating Hoet’s final design, since lost, into a different medium, the anonymous engraver preserved the facial types and drapery structures seen in the present drawing. Hoet ultimately maintained Joseph’s sidelong pose, his stance and the angle of his profile, but modified his gesture. Moreover, for visual continuity of narrative, he incorporated slight variations on Joseph’s distinctive pose in further compositions for this series.[6]

      The decision to change the compositional format meant that Hoet did not bring the present drawing to the extremely high level of finish of his surviving modelli for the La Haye Bible. Typically, however, it displays the initial phases of overlaying fine penlines with touches and broad passages of wash, adding depth, structure and solidity to the draperies and shadows, with finer brushwork enhancing facial expressions and anatomical details. The elderly male heads are characteristically broad and expressive, their beards tightly curled and their aquiline noses sharply pointed. There are strong parallels with the facial types in Hoet’s drawing manual, published in 1723, where we find a perfect match between the etched lines and the underlying penwork of the present drawing.[7] Moreover, Joseph’s features recur in his autograph etching of Paris and Oenone, with long flowing hair and a predictably pinched nose.[8]

      In keeping with the La Haye Bible illustrations, this drawing is rich in topographical detail – in this instance, a pyramid and an obelisk – and inhabited by figures dramatically characterised by their open-armed rhetorical gestures. The drawing also illustrates Hoet’s fascination with armour, which he executed in exquisite detail. Moreover, Hoet often placed a small animal in the centre foreground of his compositions, like a signature piece; in this instance we have what can only be described as a sphinx kitten.

      Jean-Baptiste Descamps concluded his biography of Hoet stating that his talent was widely recognised, not just for his genius and fineness of touch but also for his erudition, particularly regarding­ all aspects of antiquity. The present drawing demonstrates the extent to which he strove for accuracy whether in costume, armour, landscape or monuments. Together these qualities, Descamps affirmed, ‘… font regarder, à juste titre, Guerard Hoet comme un des plus completes Artistes d’Hollande’.[9]






[1] Jean-Baptiste Descamps, La Vie des Peintres Flamands, Allemands et Hollandois, avec … une indication de leurs principaux Ouvrages, et des réflexions sur leurs différentes manieres, 4 vols, Paris 1753-64, III, pp. 232-36. Hoet trained under his father and brother, both glass painters, followed by Warnard van Rijsen who had studied under Cornelis van Poelenburgh. He worked for primarily for the nobility, ‘… en executant des plafonds et de grands Tableaux dans differents Hôtels’, notably at the châteaux of Slangenborg and Voorst. He also specialised in easel paintings of religious, mythological and classical subjects.

[2] Bartsch XVII.318.28.

[3] Figures de la Bible, Den Haag (Pierre de Hondt) 1728. Jacques Saurin provided the captions in six languages that accompany the plates.

[4] Rijksmuseum RP-P-1934-277, engraver unknown. Inscribed at the lower left: ‘G. Hoet del.’

[5] Rijksmuseum RP-P-1934-165 and RP-P-OB-67.695, engraved by Gilliam van der Gouwen. Both compositions are highly animated, crowded with figures and set against tempestuous skies.

[6] For example Joseph revealing himself to his Brothers and the Discovery of his Cup in Benjamin’s Sack (Rijksmuseum RP-P-1934-94 and RP-P-1934-125), respectively engraved by Abraham de Blois and Andries van Buysen the Elder. Evidently a favourite in Hoet’s repertoire, variations of this figure type are found in several illustrations. For example the Israelites mourning Moses, Saul among the Prophets, and in preparatory studies for Joshua at the Walls of Jericho (Morgan Library & Museum 1990.3) and the Sacrifice of Noah (Metropolitan Museum 2006.30.2).

[7] See Plate 28 of De voornaamste gronden der tekenkonst, ten nutte der leergiergen voorgestelt door den konstryken schilder Gerard Hoet …, Leyden 1723, with etchings after Hoet by Pieter Bodart.

[8] Rijksmuseum RP-P-OB-3155X

[9] Descamps 1753-64, III, p. 237 ‘Les talents de Guerard Hoet sont connus de tous les Amateurs de l’Europe. Il composoit avec beaucoup de genie: ses Ouvrages montrent sa vaste erudition; il avait particulierement étudié les usages et les coutumes des anciens. Ses petits Tableaux ont beaucoup de finesse dans la touche … Ces deux mérites … font regarder, à juste titre, Guerard Hoet comme un des plus completes Artistes d’Hollande’.



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