The Coat of many Colours. Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893). 1867. Watercolour and gouache on paper. Support: 305 × 305 mm. Collection: Tate. Bequeathed by J.R. Holliday in 1931. Ref. no. N04584. Image released under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 DEED. Caption material and text added by Jacqueline Banerjee.

According to the gallery label of February 2024,

This watercolour illustrates the Old Testament story of Joseph and his coat of many colours. His brothers, jealous of the preference shown towards him by their father, have forced Joseph into slavery. Here they are shown convincing their father that Joseph has been killed, using the blood-stained coat as evidence. Among Brown’s Pre-Raphaelite circle it was common practice to visit biblical locations in Egypt and Palestine to add realism to their religious paintings. Brown, declining to travel, used a watercolour painted by British landscape painter Thomas Seddon (1821–1856) in Palestine as inspiration for the background landscape.

In his biography of the artist, Ford Madox Ford explains the painting at some length, reading it above all else as a character-study:

The brothers were at a distance from home, minding their herds and flocks, when Joseph was sold. Four of them are here represented as having come back with the coat. The cruel Simeon stands in the immediate foreground, half out of the picture; he looks at his father guiltily, and already prepared to bluster, though Jacob, his thoughts given all to his grief, sees no one and suspects no one. The leonine Judah, just behind him, stands silently watching the effect of Levi's falsity and jeering levity on their father; Issachar the fool sucks the head of his shepherd's crook, and wonders at his father's despair. Benjamin sits next his father, and with darkling countenance examines the ensanguined and torn garment. A sheep dog, without much concern, sniffs the blood, which he recognises as not belonging to man.

A grandchild of Jacob nestles up to him, having an instinctive dislike for her uncles. Jacob sits on a sort of dais raised round a spreading fig-tree. The ladder, which is introduced in a naturalistic way, is by convention the sign of Jacob, who, in his dream, saw angels ascending and descending by it.

The background is taken from a sketch made in Palestine.... the loin-cloth, as worn now by the negroes of Africa, is probably the garment from which all others derive themselves, and is peculiarly suited to the period. In the East, taking off shoes or sandals is equivalent to uncovering the head with us; on this account Simeon stands with his straw sandals in his hands.... [205-6]

However, the first impression is likely to be the vivid colour which adds so much to the tension here.



The Coat of Many Colours. Tate. Web. 29 March 2024.

Ford, Ford Madox. Ford Madox Brown: A Record of His Life and Work. London: Longmans, 1896. Internet Archive. Contributed by Robarts Library, University of Yoronto. Web. 29 March 2024.

Created 29 March 2024