The Prodigal’s Return in paintings 1

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), The Return of the Prodigal Son (c 1668), oil on canvas, 262 x 205 cm, Hermitage Museum Государственный Эрмитаж, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

The parable of the prodigal son, recorded in the Gospel of Luke chapter 15, verses 11-32, is one of the best-known stories in the New Testament, and its underlying narrative is known across several different cultures. This and my next article, to appear tomorrow, look at its depiction in some paintings, concentrating largely on those of the story’s resolution, the climax in its plot, or its peripeteia.

An affluent father has two sons, the younger of whom asks to cash in his inheritance there and then. That son goes off to a foreign land and squanders the money until he’s broke, and forced to work as a swineherd; for a Jewish audience who viewed pigs as being unclean that really is desperation. His situation isn’t helped by the fact that, at this time, a famine strikes the country. He realises the error of his ways when he starts envying the pigs’ diet, and resolves to return to his father, seek his forgiveness, and work for him as one of his servants.

When the son first appears in the distance, his father sees him, and runs to greet him with love. When the son starts to beg for forgiveness and seek work as his servant, the father welcomes him back without reservation or conditions. He calls for the son to be dressed in fine clothes, and throws a celebratory meal, for which a ‘fatted calf’ is killed.

The older son hears of the return of his brother and its celebration, and speaks to his father. He puts his case, that he has not been prodigal, but has never even been feasted with a kid, while his brother has thrown his inheritance away on loose living, and now has the fatted calf in celebration.

To that the father explains that his younger son had returned from the dead, an event which merits such celebration. It is thus a story of confession, forgiveness and redemption. Further discussion is in Wikipedia, for example.

In early ‘modern’ painting, this story was one of four parables which were widely depicted, sometimes in a series of scenes or prints. My first selection was painted by the young Peter Paul Rubens in 1618.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Prodigal Son (1618), oil on panel, 111 × 159 cm, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen, Antwerp, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

Rubens’ Prodigal Son is a magnificent painting of the son working as a swineherd, when he is talking out his problems with a young woman co-worker. Rich in detail, it’s surprisingly poor in narrative content, and unless you made the association with that part of the story, it would be easy to miss that altogether. It also misses the purpose and theme of the parable.

Rembrandt was still a boy when Rubens painted that, and it was just over fifteen years before the younger artist first committed it to paint, again choosing not to show the peripeteia, but the younger son spending his inheritance.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), Rembrandt and Saskia in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (c 1635), oil on canvas, 161 x 131 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

Rembrandt and Saskia in the Parable of the Prodigal Son from about 1635, when the artist was just short of being thirty years old, shows his young wife Saskia van Uylenburgh sitting on his lap as he raises a large fluted glass of beer at the viewer. It shows a young man revelling in his success, as they were moving into their first house in fashionable Nieuwe Doelenstraat in Amsterdam.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925), Self portrait with Charlotte Berend-Corinth (1902), oil on canvas, 98.5 x 108.5 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Almost four centuries later, Lovis Corinth and his fiancée appear together in a more ribald re-invention, Self portrait with Charlotte Berend-Corinth (1902). This is the earliest portrait that he painted of his fiancée and himself. Charlotte, in the role of Saskia, looks quiet and calm, against Corinth/Rembrandt’s alcohol-fuelled mirth.

Rembrandt revisited the parable towards the end of his life, when he had himself been prodigal, endured near-bankruptcy and a change in fortune which mirrored the younger son in the story, some twenty-five years after Saskia’s premature death.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), The Return of the Prodigal Son (c 1668), oil on canvas, 262 x 205 cm, Hermitage Museum Государственный Эрмитаж, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

The Return of the Prodigal Son from about 1668, the year before the artist’s death, is a more conventional treatment of the parable, in which the younger son, almost barefoot and in rags, kneels in front of his father. Around them are members of the household, and details which are now hard to read. As with other late works, there’s a profound feeling of tenderness and redemption, which may have had its personal significance to Rembrandt.

Simon de Vos (1603–1676), The Return of the Prodigal Son (1641), oil on copper, 58.5 x 78 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

That contrasts with Simon de Vos’s earlier Return of the Prodigal Son (1641), which he painted in oil on copper. Here the son is being returned to his father by a guardian angel, as a heavenly orchestra plays in celebration. Behind them the fatted calf is just about to be killed in advance of the main storyline. At the far right is an earlier scene in which the son, then a swineherd, is praying, and below that he is seen carousing in a bar – in multiplex narrative.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617–1682), The Return of the Prodigal Son (1667-70), oil on canvas, 236 x 262 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Murillo too shows the moment of The Return of the Prodigal Son, painted in 1667-70, almost simultaneously with Rembrandt. To the right of the reunion between father and son, a servant stands holding a tray full of clothes to replace the tattered rags which the son is wearing, and on the left the fatted calf is being readied for the feast. The artist has followed Aristotle’s prescription for successful narration, in showing forward and backward references together with the moment of peripeteia.

That contrasts with another version of the story, this time by Jan Weenix when he was in his mid-twenties, in the same year as the works by Rembrandt and Murillo.

Jan Weenix (c 1642-1719), The Prodigal Son (1668), oil on canvas, 111 x 99 cm, Residenzgalerie, Salzburg, Austria. Wikimedia Commons.

The Prodigal Son from 1668 shows the start of the story. Against a background of classical ruins, an extended family is dining at the left. In the central spotlight is a young man dressed flamboyantly, the prodigal of the title, bidding farewell to his aged father. At the right his horse is ready for him to depart. Wonderful though this work is, it fails as narrative.

Tomorrow I will concentrate on paintings from the late nineteenth century.