barber institute of fine arts
university of birmingham

Bartholomeus Breenbergh (1598-1657)

Joseph Distributing Corn in Egypt

Amsterdam, 1655

Oil on canvas

110.5 x 90 cm


Joseph, standing on a platform at the upper right, oversees the sale of corn during a time of famine. According to the Old Testament, Joseph had stored the fruits of seven bountiful years and the people of Egypt, watched by the Pharaoh, to the upper left, benefit from his foresight. Amongst the figures who buy corn, barter their goods and give charity are Joseph’s brothers (behind the camel). They once sold him into slavery and now seek his aid.

The Egyptian setting is established by the obelisk, but Breenbergh also includes Roman buildings which the Dutchman knew from his Italian journey (1619-29). The relief on the base of the obelisk points to Rome, the source of the other motifs too. A fantasy city in the background combines motifs from ancient Roman monuments and is surmounted by a gigantic Pantheon.

This is a very late painting and reminiscent of the art of Pieter Lastman in the bold gestures of the figures, the magnificent costumes and the construction of the architectural backdrop. He has also included numerous turbans and magnificent Oriental costumes like those worn by Joseph, and the Pharaoh, who looks down from a terrace on the opposite side. They show characteristics that can be found in Rembrandt’s work. In addition, the camel on which a young man with a bright red cap is enthroned, and a number of Black figures in the crowd, provided Dutch viewers of the 17th century with some idea of the distant location. Like most Netherlandish painters of his time, Breenbergh was not concerned with historical accuracy but rather with creating an atmospheric image.

The picture, which recreates an existing painting dated 1654, is the only known second version of a work in Breenbergh’s oeuvre.


Purchased 1963 (No.63.1)

The Circle of Rogier van der Weyden (about 1399/1400 – 1464)

The Deposition (centre); Adam and Eve Mourning Abel (left); Joseph’s Coat Shown to Jacob and Rachel (right)