The Return of the Prodigal Son

The Return of the Prodigal Son
Artist Rembrandt van Rijn
Year 1661–1669
Medium Oil
Location Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg
Dimensions 103.1 x 80.7 in
262 cm × 205 cm
Rembrandt Famous Paintings
The Night Watch
The Return of the Prodigal Son
The Jewish Bride
The Mill
The Storm on the Sea of Galilee
The Blinding of Samson
The Three Trees

The Return of the Prodigal Son is one of Rembrandt’s masterpieces. This painter is renowned for his various works of art that are related to history or to biblical stories, and The Return of the Prodigal Son is considered to be one of his best pieces. This is an oil on canvas painting which he completed shortly before dying in 1669.

Description of the Painting’s Background

As described in the biblical parable, the son returns to his father after the foolishness of leaving his home so as to travel and enjoy worldly pleasures. After having used up all the money his father had given him, the son ended up like a beggar, with no food and no shelter. As a result he started to work with a farmer, feeding his pigs, and he even ended up considering eating the animals’ food. Being in such a wretched state, the son decided to go back to his father so as to see if he would accept to take him back.

The story continues to say that the father welcomed the son with open hands and was overjoyed by his return. He even gave a feast in his honor so as to celebrate his return, because it was as if he was lost and then had been found. The moment when the father welcomes his son back is so momentous both from an emotional and from a religious point of view.

Rembrandt decided to paint this scene because it is very moving and important. It is evident that Rembrandt was deeply moved by this parable, because several other sketches and etchings that he made were found depicting aspects of this parable. The central themes of this painting are love and forgiveness, and their respective beauty.

The main emphasis in the painting is on the father bending slightly down so as to hug his son, who is kneeling at his feet. However, on the side one can also see a number of people who are watching the father and son. These persons were not mentioned specifically in the parable, but Rembrandt most likely painted them to evoke the feeling that such a reunion had to be treasured by all those who could see it, including those who would be appreciating the painting later on. The identities of these persons have been debated through the years. Although they could generically refer to the general public, who should learn from this parable, there were various critics who decided that they were most likely, the mother, a servant, and an advisor.

Special Qualities

This painting has various artistic qualities. Being a Baroque artist, Rembrandt placed a lot of importance on the religious theme. Spiritual awareness and a profound psychological insight are evident in this painting and Rembrandt managed to be extremely realistic in these areas via his painting, which is indeed a masterpiece.

The setting itself is quite simple. However, Rembrandt makes use of colors and light to give beauty to this painting. The father and the son are illuminated rather brightly, in contrast to the dark background. Emphasis was placed on the son’s ragged and dirty clothes. Even though one cannot see the face of the son, Rembrandt painted him so well that it is evident that he was practically feeling like an outcast, with his poverty and shabbiness. The father, in contrast, is dressed in elegant garments and appears to be emotionally moved and very glad to see his son back. His warm embrace and his love for his son are evident. A solemn and calm feeling is naturally transpired through this depiction.

The onlooking persons on the side are in the dark as they are secondary characters in this painting. In fact one of them is barely visible. Rembrandt wanted to focus on the embrace of the father and the son so as to evoke a solemn and heartwarming feeling in those who watched them reunite. The same feelings were to be felt by Christians who believed that just like the son, they would be welcomed by God if they decided to return to him. Christians believe that God will always be there for his beloved children, regardless of their sins. As long as they approach him he will welcome them with open arms.

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