The Return of the Prodigal Son (1669)

Rembrandt (1606 -1669)

Art facts:


About the painting:

            One of Rembrandt’s last paintings before his death depicts the parable of The Prodigal Son. Starting his career in Leiden, his hometown, it was when he moved to Amsterdam that he was named “the greatest artist of Holland’s ‘Golden Age'” (Met Museum, 1). Following the untimely death of his son Titus in 1668, Rembrandt completed his legendary work with a final painting in 1669 (Experts, 30). The artwork of The Prodigal Son is not unique to Rembrandt, it was a popular scene to paint, and even Rembrandt himself was moved by the story early in his career and painted, etched, and sketched many scenes from the popular story (Rembrandt, 4). This final scene of when the son returns to his father is like no other.

The entire story can be found in the gospel of Luke 15:11-32. The parable begins with the younger son of two approaching his father and demanding to possess the Father’s inheritance money. He then travels to a far off land and proceeds to spend his inheritance on entertainment and sinful behavior. The son’s funds run out, and famine strikes the land leaving him homeless and hopeless. He resorts to becoming a swine herder and, in his hunger, remembers his former life and how even the servants had more food to eat than him at that moment. The following is where the painting’s scene comes into the picture. The son decides to return to his father and to fall to his knees and beg for forgiveness. “But while he was still far off, his father saw him, and was moved with compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissing him.”– Luke 15:20, World English Bible.

This very embrace is captured in the painting. Rembrandt’s attention to detail is seen throughout the scene, from the missing shoe on the son’s foot, his tattered clothes and bald head, to his gracious father, fitted in royal clothing, stretching out his arms to embrace his returned son (Rembrandt, 3). Rembrandt draws attention to this moment using his knack for light and highlights the two men in their embrace. Along the edge of the room are seen servants dressed well, as the father, and if peering closely, some figures in the shadows are craftily painted as well (Rembrandt, 2). Using contrasting colors of scarlet and gold, Rembrandt depicts the family’s richness compared to the state of the son’s swine herding attire (Rembrandt, 2). There is a sense of peace and resolution within that moment, as if “The whole represents a symbol of all homecoming, of the darkness of human existence illuminated by tenderness, of weary and sinful mankind taking refuge in the shelter of God’s mercy” (Rembrandt, 3). The original painting can be found at the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, with dimensions of 262 X 205 cm, oil on canvas (Rembrandt, 1).