The Return of the Prodigal Son : 1669 – Rembrandt

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Is there a more emotional human trait than the act of redemption? That is the subject of Rembrandt’s masterpiece, “Return of the Prodigal Son.”

The painting is based on the biblical parable as related by Jesus in the book of Luke 15:11–32. The story tells of two sons of a prosperous man. The youngest asks for his inheritance from his father and leaves home, only to squander the money on women and high living. Starving and destitute he takes a job as a swine herder, the lowest of low occupations. He eventually comes to the realization he has sinned against God and his father. He decides to return home, ask for forgiveness and offer to earn his keep as a servant in his father’s house.

Rembrandt’s painting captures that moment of forgiveness when the father, even before the son can make his offer of servitude, lays hands on his son, welcoming him back without reservation. There’s a note of sadness in the father’s eyes. Other artists have tackled the same subject where the return of the son becomes a “hallelujah” celebration. However, Rembrandt’s version is a quiet moment. The comparison is stark between the father’s rich robes and the son’s once fine garments, now in tatters. He’s on his knees, one foot is bare, the shoes are worn, his head shorn, his face buried in his father’s cloak. Nearby his brother stands in judgment of his sibling. Behind him is an advisor and a servant, both clearly touched by the scene. In the shadows is his mother.

It’s a subject that Rembrandt illustrated several times, in drawings, etching, and paintings. And in some ways parallels Rembrandt’s own life. As a talented young painter, Rembrandt’s reputation grows. He marries Saskia, daughter of a prominent family, his commissions grow exponentially. He lives extravagantly. But when Saskia dies, his fortunes seem to die with her, and he becomes poor. Perhaps it’s foreboding that two years after his marriage, Rembrandt painted himself and Saskia in a work entitled, “The Prodigal Son In A Brothel.” (1635)

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“The Prodigal Son In A Brothel” portrays utter happiness, it cheerfully expresses Rembrandt’s joy in his marriage. He holds Saskia on his knee and raises a glass to us. In the painting, Saskia sits on the lap of a foppishly dressed Rembrandt, who gaily holds up a flagon of ale as he twists to offer a silly grin out of the picture. Saskia’s expression betrays a certain embarrassment at the rather vulgar laughter of her husband.

“Return of the Prodigal Son” was painted two years before Rembrandt’s death, and discovered only on his passing. Perhaps a personal statement on his own life.

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