In the previous article looking at paintings telling the story of the parable of the Prodigal Son, I concentrated on masterpieces from the seventeenth century. Today I leap forward two hundred years, to see how it was depicted in the late nineteenth century.
The story had remained popular with many artists from different schools and movements. For example, Edward Poynter’s Prodigal’s Return from 1869 seeks authenticity with the original parable in its setting and dress. Others sought the more unconventional.
Gustave Moreau’s Prodigal Son from about 1882 is unusual not only for its departure from his colourful ornate style, but for its choice of scene. Like Rubens, he shows the prodigal towards the end of his period of separation, when famine strikes, and the son has become destitute, working as a swineherd. Not only is Moreau’s style so different here, but there is a complete lack of symbols, ornament, and decoration: it is a simple depiction of that scene.
Henry Mosler’s The Return from 1879 is one of the first paintings to tell a modified version of the story, in which the younger son has returned just too late, to find his father lying dead, a priest still in attendance. There can be no redemption here: even the priest looks away from the son, with his filthy bare feet. Instead of a welcome-home feast will be a funeral wake. The message is not to leave repentance too late.
Axel Kulle’s Return of the Prodigal Son from 1882 has been completely recast into a contemporary story. The son hasn’t been anywhere near a herd of swine, but is clearly down at heel and his clothes are tatty. Neither is there any sign of confession, forgiveness or redemption. The artist appears to have set this to the viewer as a problem picture, to encourage speculation about the underlying story and its moral.
I don’t think that Kulle’s painting quite works in this regard, but his idea was developed very successfully by John Collier.
Collier’s Prodigal Daughter (1903) is among the artist’s most successful works, and a masterpiece of the sub-genre of ‘problem pictures’. An elderly middle-class couple are seen in their parlour in the evening in their sober black clothes and sombre surroundings. They are surprised when their prodigal daughter turns up out of the blue, in her low-cut gown with floral motifs and scarlet accessories.
Father is still sitting, backlit by a table lamp to heighten the drama. Mother has risen from her chair and is visibly taken aback. Daughter stands, her back against the door and her hand still holding its handle, as if ready to run away again should the need arise. Collier also uses ingenious shadow play, a device which became popular in the nineteenth century perhaps with the advent of optical projectors: here the mother’s cast shadow makes her appear much larger than the daughter’s, like an ogre bearing down on a child.
This immediately sparked debate over the role of women in the modern world, the nature and scope of their family responsibilities, and changing class boundaries. Collier went to great lengths to capture the expressed emotions, in terms of the daughter’s facial expression, and the contrasting body language. The daughter is seen as a ‘fallen woman’, thus part of a popular mythology of the time. But far from appearing fallen and repentant, she stands tall, proud, and wears a rich dress.
Of all the artists who painted this story, it was James Tissot who kept returning to it throughout his career, from when he was in his twenties in 1862, until he was engaged in his late series of illustrations to the New Testament around 1890.
When Tissot moved on from his early paintings of Goethe’s Faust, he paused briefly with this parable, resulting in The Return of the Prodigal Son from 1862. This still shows the influence of the Belgian history painter Henri Leys, and is superbly detailed. The disappointment is that most of those details are non-narrative: there’s no fatted calf, for example, leaving forward and backward references quite thin.
Twenty years later, Tissot returned to the parable in a series of four paintings, The Prodigal Son in Modern Life, which sought to improve on Axel Kulle’s treatment. By this time, Tissot himself had become something of a prodigal. Prior to the Franco-Prussian War, his career was developing well in Paris, and he was friends with the likes of Edgar Degas. Things seem to have gone wrong for him during the Paris Commune in 1871. Whether it was because he was on the wanted list or not, he fled to London, where he had to develop his reputation almost from scratch.
Fairly soon after arriving in London, Tissot met Kathleen Newton, an attractive Irish divorcee. She modelled for him, and from about 1876 they were lovers, living together in Saint John’s Wood, a leafy suburb of London. Like many at that time, Newton had tuberculosis, her health deteriorated, and she died in 1882, at the age of 28. Tissot was broken: the happiest years of his life had ended, so within a few days of her funeral, he returned to Paris to seek redemption.
Tissot had already decided to revisit the story of the prodigal son before Newton’s death. This time, with the examples of Hogarth, Frith, and others who had painted moralist series, he set the story in the present time, and made a complete set of engravings.
The first of the four paintings in his series The Prodigal Son in Modern Life, The Departure (c 1882) is set in one of his favourite waterside haunts along the River Thames. The windows are grimy, and the light filtered through the smoke of the city. Father, an elderly man, sits giving his younger son advice, having filled that son’s wallet with his share of inheritance. Bags are already packed and ready to go, and under the table a kitten seems to be leaving its litter too. Behind the younger son, one petal has fallen from the nasturtiums which are in a vase.
To the left, the older son stares with disappointed disinterest out towards the river. A sister (or perhaps the older brother’s wife) looks up from her sewing towards the father and son. The next two paintings, or prints, take the younger son out to Japan, where there are clear allusions to immoral conduct, then to the prodigal son’s return on board a ship carrying pigs and cattle.
The final painting (or print), The Fatted Calf (c 1882), shows the prodigal son sharpening a knife with which to carve the roast joint of meat concealed under the silver platter on the table. The older brother has just climbed up from a boat on the river, where his friends remain, and is arguing with the father as to why his younger brother should be welcomed back with a ‘fatted calf’.
There are other cues carefully placed in this painting: climbing on the trellis are nasturtiums, the flowers securely clustered together again. The mother strokes a dog, a symbol of fidelity, and the prodigal son appears to have gained a pretty female partner too.
This series was first exhibited as the centrepiece of his one-man exhibition in the Dudley Gallery, London, in 1882. He finally won a gold medal for it at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, when he was already busy working on his huge series showing the Life of Jesus Christ.
The Return of the Prodigal Son is Tissot’s third and final version of the parable. As in the previous paintings, he opts not to show this literally – the Gospel account setting this moment out on the road, where the prodigal son’s father finds him – but in one of his carefully sketched and drawn urban settings. This is one of a series of 365 illustrations of the Life of Christ which took over Tissot’s life from about 1886 until their completion eight years later. He then turned to painting scenes from the Old Testament, a series which was incomplete on his death in 1902.
I’m sure that Tissot achieved the redemption which he sought.