Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams by Peter von Cornelius

Peter von Cornelius

Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, 1816, Watercolour and gouache over pencil on brownish card, 38.6 x 35.7 cm, Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, SZ Cornelius 20, Alinari / Art Resource, NY

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A Discerning and Wise Man

Commentary by

Peter von Cornelius belonged to the Brotherhood of St Luke, a band of German Christian and Romantic artists who were part of a larger group called the ‘Nazarenes’. Inspired by Italian Renaissance painters such as Raphael, they sought a return to the artistic forms and religious subjects of the pre-Enlightenment era (Grewe 2005: 43). This watercolour is a preparatory study (dated to 1816) for one of a cycle of large-scale frescoes showing scenes from the life of Joseph. The frescoes themselves were made for a hall of the Palazzo Zuccari in Rome (and subsequently removed to the National Gallery in Berlin in 1887). They seem to have been partly modelled on the decorations of the Sistine chapel.

In the foreground, with his back to the viewer, Joseph stands before Pharaoh, explaining to him the meaning of his dreams. The court attendants, who have been unable to explain these visions, listen to Joseph with silent and rapt attention, as befits a man of such wisdom and discernment, ‘in whom is the spirit of God’ (Genesis 41:38–39).

The insignia of kingly office (the sceptre and the crown) and the grand throne (surmounted by its niche and pediment) project confidence and power, yet these contrast sharply with Pharaoh’s deeply worried countenance (v.8). This suggests his awareness of the potential impact of his troubling dreams on the welfare of all his people (Westermann 1996: 46). This focus on Pharaoh’s economic concerns is reinforced by other details in the painting. We are given glimpses of the current fertility of the land through the arches in the lunette above him, for instance, and decorating the lunette itself, we see symbols of the ‘plenty’ that Egypt will initially (but only temporarily) continue to enjoy (v.29): baskets of fruit and a nursing woman.

It is not clear from the biblical text how far Joseph is actively seeking the position of chief overseer which he proposes to Pharaoh after interpreting his dreams (vv.33–36; Turner 2009: 181). However, his immediate assumption of this role is signalled in the scene at the right of the painting in which he appears in his grand chariot (v.43). This not only offers a route out of anxiety for Pharaoh, but also secures Joseph’s future: ‘You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only as regards the throne will I be greater than you’ (v.40).



Grewe, Cordula. 2005. ‘Re-Enchantment as Artistic Practice: Strategies of Emulation in German Romantic Art and Theory’, New German Critique, 94: 36–71

Turner, Laurence A. 2009. Genesis, 2nd edn. (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press)

Westermann, Claus. 1996. Joseph: Studies of the Joseph Stories in Genesis (Edinburgh: T&T Clark)

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