Unravelling the Symbolic Layers in Ford Madox Brown’s ‘The Coat of Many Colours’
There are some paintings that last the test of being looked at again and again. They provide an experience for the eye, one that deepens with each visit. This image, with its rich and somewhat theatrical first impression, is one such painting.
Not a square inch of the canvas is without detail or some other visual incident. Painted by the British artist Ford Madox Brown in 1866, it tells the story of Joseph and his brothers, a biblical tale of jealousy, betrayal and retribution.
Before examining the painting and its details, it’s worth spending a moment looking at the way the space is illuminated — for this seems to me to dictate so much of the painting’s overall design, its mise en scène.
Scattered sunlight streams in from the left, falling first on the side of the seated boy with the musical instrument. Next, the light lands on the golden-coloured coat being proffered, as well as upon the men holding it. Meanwhile, the old man sat high on his platform — Jacob, the father of the other men — is distinctly in shadow.
The use of illumination in this way gives firm structure to the image: we have entered a private space, a rustic interior, one that is sharply divided between inside and out. The aged Jacob sits under the canopy of a fig tree (notice in the background that a camel has begun feeding on the fruit), whilst the slanting line that extends across the back of the space echoes the diagonal fall of sunlight.
A large section of the image is shaded; a mistrustful tension fills the air, commensurate with the story itself…
Joseph and His Coat
Joseph was the eleventh son of Jacob and his favourite wife, Rachel. As the youngest son of his beloved wife, Jacob has an especial fondness for Joseph.
One day, Joseph received a beautiful coat from his father. This coat was no ordinary garment; it was a coat of many colours, made from rich…