Skip to main content

Joseph Interpreting the Dreams of the Butler and the Baker

School of Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), Joseph Interpreting the Dreams of the Butler and the Baker, 1804, oil on canvas. Church History Museum.


This memorable biblical narrative of Joseph in Egypt embodies the artistic and moral ideals of post-revolutionary France. In the Old Testament story, Joseph interprets the dream of his fellow prisoners, Pharaoh’s chief butler and the chief baker. Both the servants are seated, the butler listening intently to Joseph’s encouraging words while the baker sorrowfully gazes down, disturbed by his foreboding dream. The youthful Joseph points to heaven, indicating the source of his inspired interpretations. The muscular and idealized figures of the three men are characteristic of the neoclassical style of the era—art inspired by ancient Greece and Rome.

The Egyptian setting and backdrop reflect the widespread interest in Egyptology sparked by Napoleon’s explorations and conquests in the region. The austere interior and the simple drapery worn by the prisoners also echo the restraint and severity favored by neoclassical artists.

This depiction reflects post-revolutionary attitudes, which sought to inculcate a new citizenry with proper moral and civic duties. Joseph is portrayed as a model of purity, truth and deference—the exemplary citizen. Glowing with radiant light, his moral goodness empowered him to interpret the dreams that would ultimately benefit the government, the kingdom and Joseph’s estranged family. Likewise, Joseph’s position as a prisoner and servant who eventually rose to great political prominence through his purity and sacrifice resonated with the ideals of the citizen-inspired French revolution.

This painting reflects the influence of the renowned painter Jacques-Louis David and was likely produced by a student of David. Joseph’s upward pointing arm is derivative of David’s famous Death of Socrates. The painting was reportedly brought to the United States by Joseph Bonaparte, brother of the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte, and eventually found its way to the Salt Lake Valley during the pioneer era, and was later hung in the Salt Lake Temple.

Curricular Resources

The MOA has created suggested discussion prompts and assignments for BYU CIV faculty and students to use. Each assignment is based on themes that correspond with GE learning outcomes.

View Curricular Resources Related to This Work:
19th Century France Classical Revival