'...one feels a palpable sense of theatre'

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, by Guido Reni (1575–1642), 89in by 74in, Holkham Hall, Norfolk. Bridgeman Images.

The Earl of Leicester says:
‘At night, when the only lighting in the State Rooms at Holkham are those over the pictures, one feels a palpable sense of theatre. And no picture is more enhanced than this magnificent painting. It’s also a wonderful example of the sensible legislation that allows, inter alia, pictures to be gifted to the nation in lieu of Inheritance Tax, in this case, allowing the painting to be seen by our visitors in the position that it has occupied since it first arrived at Holkham in 1759.’

Lord Leicester is patron of the Historic Houses Association

Art critic John McEwen comments:
‘Guido Reni’s father was choirmaster of Bologna Cathedral. Guido studied at the Carracci brothers’ academy in Bologna, made his international reputation in Rome, and, in 1614, returned to his provincial native city for good. His success, marred only by increasing gambling debts, easily withstood this withdrawal.

Gian Pietro Bellori, whose own Lives of the Artists makes him the Vasari of the 17th century, wrote that Reni ‘excelled every other artist of our century in beautiful painting’, not least in the way ‘he knew how to treat draperies in noble fashion’. Some 150 years later, Stendhal added: ‘The Bolognese school is almost, in all genres, the perfection of painting…Guido, a French soul if ever there was one, caught the very beauty of heaven in his female figures.’ Such tributes testify to Reni’s reputation and influence, which stretched from his own time to the mid 19th century, latterly in America as well as Europe. That is, until Victorian John Ruskin damned him and the entire 17th-century Bolognese school as sentimentalists, devoid of sincerity and religious conviction.

Only in the past 50-odd years has Ruskin’s damaging verdict been challenged and Reni’s reputation partially restored. The text illustrated is Genesis 39, 7–20, which tells the story of how Joseph, taken by the Ishmaelites into Egypt, was bought by Potiphar, captain of Pharaoh’s guard. He refused the persistent advances of Potiphar’s wife, finally having to run for it, leaving her clutching his cloak. She avenged herself by using the cloak as evidence to have him imprisoned.’

This article was first published in Country Life, April 11, 2012