A timeless, archetypal moment of the passing of one generation on to another. While Joseph and his Egyptian Wife, Asenath serenely look on, the aged, nearly blind Jacob on his deathbed breaks with tradition in blessing the youngest grandson first. In the Biblical account (Genesis: 48:8-20), the displeased Joseph interferes, trying to move his father’s hand from Ephraim to the dark-haired Manasseh--"This is the first-born; put your hand upon his head." "I know it, my son, I know it," replies the dignified patriarch, continuing to bless the younger angelic-looking, chosen child, Ephraim, as if moved by prophetic intuition, "set[ting] Ephraim before Manasseh."


Rembrandt’s insight into people’s thoughts and feelings, and his ability to capture (and alter) the human drama of a religious theme earned him the appellation, the Shakespeare of painting. A master of light and shadow (chiaroscuro), the figures shine out against the darkness, the warm reds and muted yellow colors further add to the peaceful, respective, spiritual harmony of the scene.

Contrast family deathbed scenes in George Tooker’s Corporate Decision, and Edvard Munch’s Death in the Sickroom (Ein Tod). Of the three, Rembrandt epitomizes the essence of the good hospice/palliative death: control, comfort, communication, continuity, and closure.

Jack Coulehan’s poem, “Alabama”; Alice Walker’s story, “To Hell with Dying” and her poem, “Medicine”; and William Carlos Williams’s poem, “The Last Words of My English Grandmother” fuel the ’good’ death debate reminding us that "appropriate death" is defined as the death one would choose for oneself, if one were able to choose, and portray the outward show of drama and emotions rather than the silent one enacted in the secret places of the heart and on Rembrandt’s canvas.

Note: all of the above art and literature references are annotated in this database. See also discussion and additional references to art and literature in Sandra Bertman’s book, Facing Death: Images, Insights, and Interventions, especially Chapter 2, Theme I, "The Art of Dying: The Chosen Death, "and Chapter 4, "Broadening the Perspective" (annotated in this database).


Painted in 1656. Thought to be a portrait history of Willem Schrijver II, Rembrandt's patron whose situation is likened to Joseph's [Schwartz, pp. 269-271].

Primary Source

Gary Schwartz, Rembrandt: His Life, His Paintings. (New York: Viking Penguin) 1985 (color); Sandra L. Bertman, Facing Death: Images, Insights and Interventions (Philadelphia.: Taylor & Francis/Hemisphere)1991, p. 181 (b/w).