The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt
Interpretation of Biblical painting of parable of lost son

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Return of the Prodigal Son
By Rembrandt.
Considered to be one of the
greatest religious paintings
of the 17th century.

The Return of the Prodigal Son (1666-69)


Analysis of The Return of the Prodigal Son
Explanation of Other Paintings by Rembrandt


Name: The Return of the Prodigal Son (1666-69)
Artist: Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Religious history painting
Movement: Dutch Baroque art
Location: Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

For an explanation of other celebrated oils and frescoes,
please see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For help in understanding
the Dutch painting of
artists like Rembrandt,
please see: Art Evaluation.


This masterpiece of Biblical art confirms once again Rembrandt's status as one of the best artists of all time and the greatest of all Old Masters in the depiction of scenes from the Bible. Completed during the last years of Rembrandt's life, The Return of the Prodigal Son portrays a scene from the parable as recounted in Luke 15:11-32. According to the eminent art scholar Kenneth Clark it ranks among the greatest paintings ever.

The religious iconoclasm which occurred after Holland's liberation from the colonial yoke of Spain and the Catholic Church, turned Calvinist churches into bare shells, dedicated to worship, preaching and prayer. Dutch authorities had no desire to decorate their places of worship with altarpiece art, frescoes, or any other type of religious art to speak of. Instead, Holland became famous for Dutch Realism - a type of small-scale, detailed and highly realistic style of genre painting and portrait art, much of which contained moralistic messages of various kinds. A third type of art at which Dutch Realist artists excelled, was still life painting (notably Vanitas painting), which also contained a moral, sometimes religious message. This was the nearest that many Dutch people came to "Protestant art". It is therefore all the more surprising that a Dutch Protestant painter like Rembrandt should become such a perceptive interpreter of Biblical scenes.

There was no longer any demand in Holland for Christian art featuring saints, archangels, triumphant martyrs, or works glorifying the Virgin Mary, in the style of the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Nevertheless, there was still an audience for themes from the Old Testament, particularly when filled with dramatic action. Benefiting from a classical education, and a good knowledge of the Bible, the young Rembrandt repeatedly portrayed the story of Samson and Delilah, with tremendous feeling for scenic effects. Please see also Samson and Delilah (1610) by Rubens. In his mature work, however, there is a change of attitude: the masquerades cease, a mild light envelopes the scene and, instead of pathetic gestures, emotions and religious substance make themselves felt.



Analysis of The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt

In The Return of the Prodigal Son - one of Rembrandt's last paintings before his death - all dynamism has vanished. Like an Old Testament patriarch, the father lays his hands upon the shoulders of the shaven penitent dressed in threadbare garments. With his eyes half-closed, his gentle gestures command silence. The act of forgiving becomes a blessing of almost sacramental dignity. This is a portrayal of the utmost spiritualization, freed of all anecdotal aspects, in which all movement and action have come to a standstill. The elder brother on the right, with his remorseful appearance, had, according to St. Luke, reproached his father: "See, I have served you for so many years and never disobeyed your commandments ... but now he, who wasted your money with harlots, has come and you have sacrificed the fattened calf for him." Rembrandt, however, removes these words, allowing him to take part in this moving moment in silence. The scene is plunged into a cellar-like darkness out of which the faces of the father and his oldest son shine palely, their red capes giving this darkness its glow. Rembrandt, with all his mastery, did not indulge in artistic sophistication but produced a pittura povera giving predominance to simplicity.

Rembrandt repeatedly dealt with the theme of the prodigal son - as an etcher and, particularly often, in his drawing and sketches - see, for instance, The Return of the Prodigal Son (1656, bister drawing, Victoria & Albert Museum, London). In this monumental oil painting version, he arrived at his most moving and - through the contrasting of the older and younger (prodigal) son - psychologically, most complex formulation.

The arrangement of the figures - the father and the older son (both in red), and the younger kneeling son - the lack of movement, the shadowy light and, in particular, the warmth and harmony of the colour palette, with its use of ochre, golden olive and scarlet - all these things contribute to the extraordinary sense of quiet, as well as a tender forgiveness that is almost palpable. The painterly genius of Rembrandt enables him to invest the scene with a timeless dignity and grandeur that perfectly reflects the son's sincere repentence as well as his father's loving and merciful response.

The inherent message conveyed by this spiritual masterpiece is clear. God will always forgive a repentant sinner, no matter what. Indeed, some art scholars interpret The Return of the Prodigal Son as a plea to the Jews to rejoin mainstream Christianity, secure in the knowledge that they will receive a warm welcome from God and all his followers. These scholars believe that the older son symbolizes the Jews, and that Rembrandt deliberately painted him in the same colours as his father, signifying that they are, in a sense, one and the same.

Explanation of Other Paintings by Rembrandt

Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)
Mauritshuis, The Hague.

The Night Watch (1642)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer (1653)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Bathsheba Holding King David's Letter (1654)
Louvre, Paris.

Portrait of Jan Six (1654)
Private Collection, Amsterdam.

The Conspiracy of Claudius Civilis (1661)
Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

Syndics of the Cloth-Makers Guild (The Staalmeesters) (1662)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Suicide of Lucretia (c.1666)
Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

The Jewish Bride (c.1665-8)
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.


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