The origins of this type of cabinet seem to lie in Spain, deriving from the Moorish tradition of piecing together small refined wooden objects. At the beginning of the 16th Century a new form appeared, the cofre de Valencia, outwardly resembling a chest, but with on one side a door concealing a nest of small drawers. The next development seems to have been the escritorio, a box filled with drawers whose fall-front, when let down and resting on a table, or on lopers incorporated in a stand, served as a writing surface. Such a practical portable combination of document case and writing-desk circulated rapidly through the Habsburg Empire, and the form now known as a schreibtisch was produced in quantity in the great mercantile cities of Augsburg and Nuremberg. From the 1570s ebony was the preferred material for cabinets, and by the beginning of the 17th Century, the fall-front had usually given way to doors.
In 1603 Philip III of Spain was driven to forbid the import of Nuremberg cabinets, and production consequently began to spread to within the Habsburg dominions. As discussed by R. Fabri, 'De 17de-eeuwse Antwerpse Kunstkast: Typologische en Historische Aspecten' in Verhandelingen van de Koninklijke Academie voor Wetenschappen, 1991, the production of such cabinets began in Antwerp in circa 1620. Rather than always being free-standing, they were commonly presented placed on a table - the latter usually draped with a thick rug - in the reception rooms of city mansions. Contemporary painted interiors show that they were display pieces, with the doors permanently open. They were usually centrally placed, against the wall opposite the entrance door or near the chimney, often with a mirror placed behind, and so situated as to allow sunlight to fall onto and reflect from the mirrored centre, which was therefore called the prospektiefke.
Cabinets were used to house collections of jewellery, silver, minerals, shells and other specimens, a link with the princely tradition of the kunstkammer; so, for example, in the early 17th Century Philipp Hainhofer, an Augsburg merchant, orchestrated the production of a series of monumental cabinets packed with works of art and nature. Fabri, in an article of 1993 in Verhandelingen van de Koninklijke Academie voor Wetenschappen, also notes that for the painted decoration of the drawers, specialised studios were commissioned. These have rarely been identified, because of the lack of signed works. It is, however, known that Francken's workshop adopted this new practice and, indeed, one of his sons, Frans III, seems to have developed it as a speciality (see U. Härting, Frans Francken II, Freren, 1989, pp. 186-7); it is, however, very rare to find autograph works by Frans II in such pieces. In the present case, however, the two side doors, depicting Joseph's Sons being blessed by Jacob and Jacob interpreting Pharaoh's Dreams are evidently by the master himself, whilst the smaller panels would appear to be at least in part painted with studio assistance.
The compositions would all appear to be unique within Francken's oeuvre. Only two other treatments of the subject are known by the artist: The Story of Joseph, datable to the 1630s (sold in these Rooms, 23 April 1982, lot 28) and The Reunion of Jacob and Joseph, datable to 1624-6 and painted in collaboration with Abraham Govaerts and Hans Jordaens III (sold in these Rooms, 30 March 1979, lot 15; ibid, p. 229, nos. 8 and 9). The Story of Joseph, however - which is an unusual example of the use of pictorial narrative in Francken's work - has within it depictions of Joseph and Potiphar's Wife and Joseph sent into Prison that recall the corresponding examples in this cabinet and suggest a similar dating for the present panels of the mid-1620s.
We are grateful to Dr. Ursula Härting for confirming the attribution to Frans Francken II and Studio: Dr Härting describes it as a 'good and rare piece'.