Painted before much of Egypt was known in the west, the painting shows flourishes of the Eastern and the Classical. The pharaoh, a wise and bearded (white) man, wears a turban set with pearls and Roman cameo. Joseph wears flowing looks and cloaks from an earlier period of Italian history. The columns are Classical Greek, clean and white. An almost Germanic Wagnerian guard wears a strange griffin helmet. A cheeky trumpeter may even be a self portrait of the artist.
The painting is poised between movement and stillness, at the pregnant moment on the cusp of fulfilment.
After Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt much more was known about Egypt. Egyptian style become de rigeur for everything from corniche work to woodnotes and daybeds. In paintings sphinxes, pyramids and obelisks were suitable signifiers for this exotic land.
Before this, the main sources for knowledge on Egypt were the Classical authors and the Bible. The painting is based on Genesis 41:42:
And Pharaoh took off his ring from his hand, and put it upon Joseph’s hand, and arrayed him in vestures of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck.
It shows the dramatic scene when Joseph is released from prison and becomes grand vizier. It is the key scene that instigates the arrival of the Israelites into Egypt.
Other sources would have been the Egyptian artefacts found in old colonies of the Roman Egypt, especially in Rome. These artefacts were both taken from Egypt and created in Italy to meet the demand for Egyptian art amongst Roman consumers. Sometimes this art could be very classicised.
The restorators have done a marvellous job. The colours are rich and deep and a lot of research has been made into the X-rays have revealed signs of earlier working, including various hand and facial gestures for Joseph. This offers a deeper understanding of the dramatic talent of Tiepolo and reminds us that he is creatively drawing on and developing a trope.