These large historical compositions were Rysbrack's chief artistic products in old age, after he had retired as a sculptor. Yet although he has set the action in an interior space with a strong sense of perspectival recession, his approach to the organisation of the figures, who are all set in strong relief, betrays his background as a sculptor. Similar large historical monochrome compositions are now at Stourhead, Wiltshire, having been acquired at Rysbrack's sale on 14 February 1767 by Henry Hoare II.
Rysbrack made a series of a dozen drawings on the Old Testament history of Joseph, nine of which were sold in 1774 after his death. At the Victoria and Albert Museum is Joseph's brethren selling him to the Ishmeelites, the same size as the drawings here. Joseph Makes Himself known to his Brothers is perhaps the most dramatic scene of the entire story, when Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers, who have come to him as ragged shepherds in search of food. Rysbrack has followed the biblical text closely, for in the background are Joseph's servants leaving the room, as noted in chapter 45 verse 1 that Joseph ordered 'every man to go out from me' so that he was left alone with his brothers. Later, Joseph sends his brothers back home laden with food and money, but orders one of his servants to catch up with them to search their luggage. A slightly smaller drawing in the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston, shows the moment when Joseph's silver cup was found in the sack of his younger brother Benjamin. Joseph Embalmed captures the very last sentence in the Book of Exodus, 'So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.'
Large works such as these demonstrate the suitability of drawings for public display in the pre-Royal Academy era, from 1763 until his death Rysbrack exhibited many at the academy's predecessors, the Society of Artists of Great Britain and the Free Society of Artists. A drawing now at Stourhead was shown in 1763 (no.189) and a scene from Homer's Iliad, now at the Yale Center for British Art, was exhibited in 1765. Walpole commented in 1767 that 'Mr Rysbrack's drawings are very fine.' However, in 1772 the Royal Academy ordered that 'persons who only exhibit Drawings cannot be admitted as Candidates for Associates.' The decision fuelled a debate about the treatment and status of drawings and watercolours within the Academy in the ensuing decades, and was a prime cause of the decision of a group of watercolour painters to form their own exhibiting society in 1805.
- A Catalogue of the Reserved Collection of Capital Drawings... of... M.Rysbrack, Christie's 7 February 1774, lots 68-71 on 9 February.
- Victoria and Albert Museum, museum no.E.571-1981.
- National Trust, museum no.NT 730991, Yale Center for British Art, museum no. B1992.19.2.
- Quoted in Algernon Graves, The Society of Artists of Great Britain [and] The Free Society of Artists, London, 1907, p.221.
- London, Royal Academy Archives, Council Minutes Vol 1, f.132, entry for 4 May 1772.