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Rembrandt's "The Return of the Prodigal Son"

November 11, 2021 4 min read
Rembrant's "The Return of the Prodigal Son"

Rembrandt van Rijn, a Dutch Golden Age painter, is counted amongst the greatest artists ever to have lived. Born in Leiden in the Dutch Republic in 1606, Rembrandt moved to Amderstdam to further his artistic training. The subject matter of Rembrandt's paintings varied greatly, including religious scenes, portraits, landscapes, historical and mythological scenes, and even one seascape painting, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee.

Shortly before his death in 1669, Rembrandt completed one of his most famous works, The Return of the Prodigal Son, a culmination of sketches and drawings he had produced of the scene throughout previous decades.

The parable of the prodigal son is recounted in Luke 15. A young man asks that his father give him his inheritance, and he sets off to a far country, squandering his property on “loose living.” In the midst of the destitution and despair that follows, he resolves to return to his father:

But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry (Luke 15:17-24).
In Rembrandt's depiction of the scene, the prodigal son falls to his knees and collapses into his father's embrace. His head is shaved, his garments coarse and worn, and his tattered shoes fall off his feet. Attached to the rope he uses as a belt is the dagger he needed in his darker life.
Rembrandt's "The Return of the Prodigal Son"
The lower portion of "The Return of the Prodigal Son." Click on the image to see the entire piece.

In stark contrast to the worn clothing and the faded colors of the prodigal son are the vibrant colors of his father and elder brother – as the son predicted, even his father's servants are dressed more impressively than he is. While two of these servants can be seen is the center of the painting (one sitting beside the father and the other peering over the father's shoulder), a third servant can be glimpsed deep in the darkness, standing in the doorway (in the upper left corner).

Rembrant's "The Return of the Prodigal Son"
The central portion of "The Return of the Prodigal Son." Click on the image to see the entire piece.

More visible than the servants is the older brother. Dressed similarly to the father, the elder brother has remained faithful. At first, he refuses to go into the party being thrown for his brother: “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!” The father's response serves as the culmination of the scene: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” Within the father's response to the elder brother is an invitation, but the parable ends without telling us of his response. For this reason, Rembrandt places him to the side of the moving embrace of father and son, standing on the edge of the light shining upon the scene with his decision yet to be made, neither yet fully in the light nor fully in the dark.

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