Carlo Francesco NUVOLONE (Milan 1609 - Milan 1661)

Joseph and the Wife of Potiphar Sold

Oil on canvas, 59 x 45½ in (150 x 115.5 cm)




Provenance : Private collection.

Literature : Unpublished.

Although the lombard school of the first half of the seventeenth century has accustomed us to an expressionist sort of painting, with wilfully tragic accents – that of Tanzio da Varallo (c. 1580-1633), Francesco Cairo (1607-1665) and Giulio Cesare Procaccini (1574-1625), to name but a few – we should not forget the elegant, gentle language of Carlo Francesco Nuvolone, the second of a dynasty of three artists who have only recently been treated together in a voluminous monograph.1 A beautiful Portrait of the Nuvolone Family of Painters (Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera) by Carlo Francesco and his young brother Giuseppe Nuvolone presents them in an immediate, explicit manner; it also allows us to bring to life his skills in portrait- painting, a genre he mastered with great talent throughout his career. Carlo Francesco Nuvolone was firmly rooted in the Milanese tradition: after initial training with his father, a painter of figures and remarkable still life pictures during the Counter Reformation, he became a student of Giovanni Battista Crespi, called Il Cerano (1565/70-1632), at the Accademia Ambrosiana. In a broader context, his painting does share some qualities with that of G. C. Procaccini, especially as regards the sensuous treatment of colour. His earliest dated work, the Miracle of Saint Martha (1636; Pavia, Pinacoteca), contains vivid signs of this Milanese apprenticeship, from which he gradually distanced himself as he created his own idiom – less dramatic and tormented, and with a focus on less weighty subjects, where swirling drapery and languid, sensual expressions were to find great favour with private collectors.
The work presented here is a new addition to the oeuvre of Carlo Francesco Nuvolone, who was particularly fond of subjects extolling the virtues of modesty and continence. Indeed, this picture may have been accompanied by a Susanna and the Elders, as was the case on other occasions in his career: Joseph and the Wife of Potiphar and Susanna and the Elders in the Galleria dell’Accademia Tadini in Lovere, which illustrate the subject of seduction and have dimensions close to those of our picture. 2
The sensuality of the velvety shadows of the naked back is only equalled by the obvious pleasure the painter had in describing a beautiful, appealing young woman, adorning her with jewels and surrounding her with precious fabrics – taffetas with their moiré effect, sheets in multiple folds and swirling drapery as Joseph seeks to escape an insistent invitation. The two bodies are linked in a highly dynamic movement given material form by the diagonal of the naked arm that attempts to restrain the young man, paralleled by the ample orange-pink drapery that flies around him as he makes his escape. Joseph’s gaze, directed backwards as a result of what must be an abrupt turn of the head, to judge by his hair, seams hopeless before the determination of Potiphar’s wife.
Much of the painting’s success lies in this exchange of gazes, which infuses the scene with drama, unlike the composition in the Accademia Tadini, in which the young woman looks out frontally in a somewhat surprising and almost embarrassing way at the beholder, who is also her witness. We are truly captivated by the story and drawn into a painting where the eye may wander over soft flesh or golden fabrics. Seated in her bed, and higher up than Joseph, she is the instigator and the leading actress of this biblical episode (Genesis 39: 7-11). The grand garment – apparently functioning more for decorum than narrative, and sustaining the movement of the composition – is of vital importance since it is to become incriminating evidence; it will remain with the temptress, who later takes revenge by having her husband arrest Joseph.
The Baroque maturity of this picture allows for a display of intense facial emotions and recalls the art of Giulio Cesare Procaccini, which according to Filippo Mario Ferro points to a relatively early dating, somewhere around 1640. In addition to his adherence to the Baroque style, Carlo Francesco Nuvolone was able to lay the groundwork for a calm, vaporous anticipation of the eighteenth century.


1. Filippo Maria Ferro, Nuvolone una famiglia di pittori nella Milano del ’600, Soncino, 2003.
2. Carlo Francesco Nuvolone, Joseph and the Wife of Potiphar and Susanna and the Elders (oil on canvas, 156 x119 cm each), Lovere (Bergamo), Galleria dell’Accademia Tadini, cats. P 137 and P 132.