Richard McBee: Relative Narratives

Richard McBee: Relative Narratives

On view April 10–August 14, 2016
Text by Susan Chevlowe, Chief Curator and Museum Director

Richard McBee draws equally from what is read and what is seen. Discussions of Jewish art often set these systems—textual and visual knowledge—in opposition. However, McBee eschews such binaries. Instead, he has a rich and deep knowledge of the Bible and biblical commentaries and of the history of art that together form the wellspring of his art. Sotah Series, 2009, and The Story of Asenath, 2013, are narrative postmodern works that hark back to the way in which stories were told sequentially in the ancient wall paintings at the synagogue at Dura Europos or by Giotto at the Arena Chapel. With their pastiches and visual quotations, they offer the familiar intermingling of present and past in Jewish history and tradition.

Perhaps the only instance of Asenath in the history of art is her appearance in Rembrandt’s Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph of 1656 (Museumslandschafts Hessen, Kassel, Germany), according to McBee. The Sotah story has rarely, if ever, been retold in visual art. McBee’s Sotah Series comprises four, individually titled 24-x-24-inch canvases and Asenath eight panels, 20 x 20 inches also with separate titles. In each grouping, the simply drawn figures act in spaces where the geometry echoes or complements the canvas shape, which is punctuated by such forms as the architectural triangles of pediments (Sotah) or pyramids (Asenath). Both series take place in settings identifiable through simple visual clues that function as a synecdoche relative to the larger narratives: an execution yard; a patriarch’s bedroom; a synagogue, or an apartment block.

Sotah Series

The source of Sotah Series is Numbers 5:11–31, and what is “perhaps one of the most egregious biblical laws concerning women,” according to the artist. The chapter describes a trial by ordeal, referred to in the text as a curse that is imposed on a wife (the Sotah), who is accused of adultery, even if her husband has no witnesses or is simply jealous. As McBee explains and as elaborated in the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 8a), this law demands that the accused woman “be publically humiliated, her hair let down, and her breasts exposed before the community in an effort to get her to confess her ’crime.’’’ This action is represented in the second of the four panels, Sotah Exposed, on the steps of a synagogue building lit by the warm tones emanating from inside and on the right by the cold light of the moon in a dramatic night sky. McBee goes on: “If she is still adamant of her innocence, she is forced to publicly drink magical bitter waters and, if she survives, she is fated to return to her distrustful husband, who put her through this demeaning process in the first place.”

I posed the following questions about the series to McBee:

Can you address how the paintings narrate the scrutiny and humiliation of the Sotah without re-enacting it; in other words, does the representation run the risk of degrading women? How do you avoid it? How do you challenge it?

Are you concerned that depicting the humiliation of the Sotah in a graphic, perhaps even voyeuristic, manner undermines your critique?

Why represent this “long-abandoned practice,” as you describe it, to address contemporary concerns in general, and, in particular, relative to other abuses women face in non-Jewish communities throughout the world today that have nothing to do with Jewish law [halacha]?

RM: The primary motivation for creating Sotah Series is my frustration and anger as we encounter this halacha each year in Numbers. The accused wife’s ordeal seems so cruel and unjust as embedded in the holy Torah I not only love, but constantly use as the primary source of my creativity. Therefore, I was compelled to depict it in as disturbing a way as possible to convey my distress with its contents. Of course, the last painting of the series, Sotah Returns Home, bears my narrative punch. Now that she is found innocent, we see her cowering in fear from her husband and “blessed” to have more and better children with the very man who neither trusted nor loved her.

SC: The works, as you’ve said, examine how “religious and social norms attempt to control women and their bodies.” While the trial by ordeal of the Sotah has been abandoned (and some claim it may never have been practiced), when talking about the series elsewhere, you’ve contextualized it by citing U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan’s campaign to Unite to End Violence Against Women: “The most common form of violence experienced by women and girls is physical violence inflicted by an intimate partner. On average, at least one in three women is beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused by an intimate partner in her lifetime.” (

As the U.N. acknowledges, widely condemned outside of the societies where they occur, all kinds of physical and emotional abuse, including forced marriage, female circumcision, traf­ficking, and rape, continue and are both consequence and cause of discrimination against women and violations of their human rights. Such violence is both condoned and practiced by those in power (almost always men), even as they may be relative to traditions or behaviors that have been tolerated and that can be used as justification to continue them. Is at least part of your message that they, too, not only must be, but can be abandoned, as the Jewish case demonstrates?

RM: Sotah Series depicts an injustice that must be seen in the light of day, much like a photograph or painting of an American lynching, the massacre of Guernica famously depicted by Picasso in 1937 (Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid), or Goya’s The Third of May 1808 of 1814 (Museo del Prado, Madrid), or his etchings, The Disasters of War of 1810–20. My job is to make the Jewish audience face the troubling realities of the text we live by. The need to depict the narrative in contemporary terms reflects the unchanging reality of the contemporary subjugation of women. Additionally, the mere fact that we do not (i.e. are not able to) actually enact this ritual today does not remove it from our Torah, nor from the lists of the 613 biblical mitzvot [commandments] nominally accepted by Orthodox Jews.

The Story of Asenath

A reference to Asenath is found in the story of Joseph in Genesis. It appears in the text shortly after Joseph has interpreted Pharoah’s dream: “And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenathpaneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Potiphera priest of On. And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt” (Genesis 41:45, Jewish Publication Society, As in Sotah Series, McBee uses expressive brushwork and a limited palette that helps to establish locales and settings and to set the emotional tone for the unfolding of the narrative. Among the hues, there is the bold manganese blue that identifies Shechem, perpetrator of the rape of Dinah and father of Asenath, and the lemon yellow of the wall in the fourth panel that provides a transition into the land of Egypt before morphing into the raking light in the scene where Asenath’s and Joseph’s children, Ephraim and Menasseh, receive their grandfather’s blessing.

SC: Can you speak to the incongruity of settings in The Story of Asenath? The first four panels are spaces that are recognizable and seemingly of the present—a domestic interior and an urban landscape—the next three are foreign and exotic—plainly Egypt—and the final one—familiar and home-like—literally, Jacob’s bedroom. But the familiar is, of course, uncanny as the events taking place in them are not bound by the rules of time and space. Can you elaborate on this progression?

RM: The first scene, Leah and Rachel Pregnant, is a prequel in the doctor’s office. Rachel is pregnant with Joseph and Leah is pregnant with Dinah. The beginnings of domesticity will soon be shattered by rape and murder and exile in a harsh, black-and-white urban environment. Egypt is deeply foreign, but softened by the inclusion of Joseph into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Potiphar in the seventh panel, Asenath Brings Joseph Home to Mr. and Mrs. Potiphar (a reference to Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son of ca. 1661-1669, in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg), signaling Joseph’s return to Jewish identity. Finally, one finds Jacob’s home, in which the first domestic scene is brought to a conclusion by Asenath, central and dominant, in Asenath Confirms Jacob’s Crossed Blessing. A biblical family portrait, it echoes the royal family portrait of Velázquez’s Las Meninas of 1656 (Museo del Prado, Madrid), as well as being a visual acknowledgement of Rembrandt’s Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph.

SC: Against their father’s wishes, Dinah’s brothers take revenge for her rape by murdering all the men of the city and taking their women, wealth, and property as spoils (Genesis 34:25–29). You depict a firing squad made up of the brothers, Simeon and Levi, in the third panel, Slaughter of the Men of Shechem, a composition that pays homage to such iconic works as Goya’s The Third of May 1808 and Manet’s several versions of Execution of Emperor Maximilian of 1867–69. Goya’s The Third of May presented a new, radical, up-close view of war and mass killings. Closer to our own time, Picasso’s Massacre in Korea of 1951 (Musée Picasso, Paris), where the victims are women and children, also relates compositionally to your work. In your painting, Simeon and Levi hold rifles, while in Genesis they used swords. What modern warfare sometimes reveals is a blurring of victim and perpetrator. With these modern weapons, and because the victims are nude, I can’t help thinking of the iconography of representations of the Holocaust and the death squads pictured in those rare photographs that document such killings. What is meant in your work by this allusion, if it is there?

RM: Both the rape of Dinah and the vicious response of Simeon and Levi are cautionary tales that initially seem to be dead ends. Rape and sodomy followed by calculated mass murder seem to have no narrative purpose. These events cause a schism between Jacob and his vigilante sons that persists through Jacob’s final blessing at the end of Genesis. It is the midrash that salvages a feminist tale from male squalor. The ancient midrash provides Joseph with 1) a Jewish wife and Jewish children; 2) the possibility of a Jewish identity (my midrash), and 3) a narrative purpose to an otherwise horrific encounter with the residents of Canaan. The art historical references you see in Slaughter of the Men of Shechem are all intentional. The victims’ nudity echoes their circumcision (see Genesis 34:24). The urban landscape is actually a battlefield ruin.

SC: In the biblical text, Jacob chastises his sons for taking revenge, expressing his fear that the survivors in the Hivite land will in turn seek retribution. The biblical chapter ends with a rhetorical question posed by the sons in their defense: “And they said: ‘Should one deal with our sister as with a harlot?’” (Genesis 34:31). Jacob wishes to prevent a cycle of war that may commence with this incident. Did you think about this in your interpretation of the narrative?

RM: In the biblical narrative Jacob cannot stop the cycle of violence. Only the midrash allows him to save Asenath from the bloodletting.

SC: We then see her brothers turn against Dinah, because her daughter is born of shame. Jacob protects her by sending her to Egypt. In the fourth panel, Jacob Saves Asenath, as in the first panel, Jacob is dressed in dark clothing with a broad-brimmed hat; here he stands protectively between Dinah and her brothers. Your accompanying text explains that Dinah’s daughter is Asenath, who, as the (adopted) daughter of Potiphar, will be given to Joseph by Pharoah to wed (Genesis 41:45). That she is Dinah’s daughter we know from the midrash (Midrash Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer), not from the text. (This also makes her Joseph’s niece!). Can you tell me about the next scene showing Asenath with Potiphar and his wife? Is that the angel swooping in from the upper left, and what is the secret the child is whispering in Mrs. Potiphar’s ear?

RM: In the fifth panel, Asenath Arrives in Egypt, the angel who brought her to Mr. and Mrs. Potiphar is hovering protectively. Potiphar is appalled by the intrusion because, as some have suggested, he is a eunuch who lusted after Joseph, whom Asenath is destined to marry. At the same time, Asenath whispers to Mrs. Potiphar that she (Asenath) will fulfill Mrs. Potiphar’s vision of a role in Joseph’s family. Mrs. Potiphar realizes her role is not as wife, but as mother-in-law.

SC: The scene of Joseph and the crowd of women in his thrall, Asenath Discovered by Joseph, is your own midrash. Joseph is dressed as an Egyptian, but the women near him are a multicultural group of semi-clad and dressed women, perhaps from different places and social classes. Can you say more about this? And, of course, Asenath, rather than portrayed as an Egyptian, is clothed anachronistically in what looks to be a costume derived from western dress of the late 19th century—perhaps from Edvard Munch, Summer Night’s Dream (The Voice) of 1893 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).

RM: Asenath Discovered By Joseph is entirely my midrash. The adoring Egyptian women are modeled on the screaming fans of the Beatles. Many midrashim support the notion of Joseph’s sexual appeal. Asenath is contrasted as a prim (and holy, “kadosh,” as we see from the Hebrew letters across her chest) example of Jewish female modesty.

SC: In Asenath Confirms Jacob’s Crossed Blessing, when Jacob intentionally blesses Ephraim before Menasseh, you assign an important role to Asenath; she prevents Joseph from switching hands to bless the older child first. Is this your midrash, too?

RM: Asenath’s active role in the crossed blessing is indeed my own midrash, but inspired by Rembrandt’s prominent depiction of Asenath in Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph. Scholars debate why Rembrandt included a non-scriptural character in this painting. Jamie Buettner explains the reason as, “The inclusion of Asenath in the family drama underscores the importance of the mother in Dutch society” [California State University, Fresno]. Nonetheless, I detect a much more narrative rationale for her presence in Rembrandt. Louis Ginzberg quotes Yelammedenu (Tanhuma B) that Asenath cared for the ailing Jacob in Egypt and informed Joseph that his father was failing and it was time to ask for his blessing (The Legends of the Jews, 1909). I would not be surprised if Rembrandt knew that midrash.

SC: How do you see the relationship between Sotah Series and The Story of Asenath?

RM: Sotah Series is a protest, a warning; The Story of Asenath is a celebration of the pivotal role a woman plays in the future of the Jewish people. Born out of the violence of rape, its ensuing revenge of mass murder, and the murderous threat of her own uncles, Asenath’s role of maintaining her Jewish identity (given to her by her grandfather Jacob) and standing apart from her Egyptian peers, allows her to impart that identity to the second most powerful man in Egypt, Joseph. It is Asenath who fully understands the wisdom of her grandfather’s unorthodox blessing of her and Joseph’s sons. It is she who guides and sustains; she is not a victim, rather she shapes the Jewish future.

Richard McBee, Aesnath Brings Joseph Home to Mr. and Mrs. Potiphar, from The Story of Aesnath, 2013, oil on canvas, 20 x 20 in. Courtesy of the artist.

About the Artist

 Richard McBee was born in New York City and studied painting at the Art Students League of New York. He has dealt exclusively with subject matter from the first five books of the Bible, rabbinic commentaries, and from Jewish history in figurative narratives since 1976. In 1991 he was one of the founding members of the American Guild of Judaic Art. Since 2008 he has been active as a curator in the Jewish Art Salon in New York City and most recently organized Passover and the Consequences of Freedom at Brooklyn Jewish Art Gallery, a co-presentation with Jewish Art Salon.

McBee has exhibited in the U.S. and Israel since the late 1970s. Most recently, three of his paintings from a series on Hagar were included in a group exhibition organized by Jewish Art Salon, New York/New Work, at Mishkan Museum of Art, Ein Harod, Israel (2015–2016). He was also included in the Jewish Art Salon Pavilion at the Jerusalem Biennale, Van Leer Institute, Jerusalem (2015); in two exhibitions at the Museum at Hebrew Union College, New York, Evil: A Matter of Intent (2015–16) and The Sexuality Spectrum (2012–2013); Terror: Artists Respond, Dershowitz Center Gallery at Industry City, Brooklyn (2011), and Dura Europos Project, Museum of Jewish Art in Philadelphia (2010–11).

From 2000 until 2014 he wrote a regular column in The Jewish Press surveying the Jewish arts scene and has also been published in The Forward and The Jewish Week. Lecturing throughout the country, his artwork is also in many private collections. Additional information on the artist, and his writings, may be found at

This text, which originally appeared in the printed exhibition brochure, was produced in conjunction with the exhibition Richard McBee: Relative Narratives on view in the Derfner Judaica Museum from April 10–August 14, 2016.

As a member of the American Alliance of Museums, Hebrew Home at Riverdale by RiverSpring Health is committed to publicly exhibiting its art collection throughout its 32-acre campus, including the Derfner Judaica Museum and a sculpture garden overlooking the Hudson River and Palisades. The Derfner Judaica Museum + The Art Collection provide educational and cultural programming for all visitors, including residents of Hebrew Home, their families, and the general public, who come from throughout New York City, its surrounding suburbs, and elsewhere. RiverSpring Health is a nonprofit, non-sectarian geriatric organization serving more than 12,000 older adults through its resources and community service programs. Museum hours: Sunday–Thursday, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Art Collection and grounds open daily, 10:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m. Call 718.581.1596 for holiday hours or to schedule group tours, or for further information visit our website at

Derfner Judaica Museum Logo JPG

Hebrew Home at Riverdale
5901 Palisade Avenue
Riverdale, New York 10471
Tel. 718.581.1596

NYCulture_logo_CMYKThis exhibition is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.