The Return of the Prodigal Son
by Rembrandt van Rijn (c. 1668) Baroque, Netherlands
Recognizing the story of the prodigal son as a famous art work for Father’s Day may seem a bit unusual. But many of us can relate to the theme, as fathers/mothers or as prodigals. I recall the unconditional love and forgiveness my earthly father – and my heavenly Father – showed to me when I returned home after the prodigal period of my life.
This post is to honor all our precious fathers who accepted and loved us when and where we were at – and welcomed us back home with open arms.
God’s paternal love was one of Rembrandt’s favorite motifs, explored through many mediums. Rembrandt’s religious paintings are that of inward-turning contemplation, evoking spiritual stillness.
Rembrandt’s psychological insight and his profound sympathy for human affliction produced, at the end of his life, one of the most moving pictures in all religious art and one of his masterpieces.
The artist depicts the famous moment in the biblical parable when the prodigal son begs forgiveness from is father. The loving father welcomes his wayward son and embraces him with open arms.
This painting also demonstrates Rembrandt’s personal style completely in tune with the simple eloquence of the biblical passage. We see his mastery of light and shadow. Its focus is the beautiful, spiritual face of the worn, old man. The light, mingled throughout with the shadow, directs our attention to father and son by illuminating them. The witnesses are obscured except for a touch of light highlighting the stern face of the foremost witness (Kleiner 707, 708).
Part of its impact of “The Return of the Prodigal Son” is its size. Painted within a few years of his death in 1669, the oil on canvas is impressively large at about 8′ 8″ high x 6′ 9″ wide. Considered one of his masterpieces, this painting hangs at the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. I missed seeing it in my time at the Hermitage, but it is on my bucket list if I get the chance to visit it again!
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), leading Baroque Dutch painter of the time, was an undisputed genius. An artist of great versatility, he was renowned as a master of light and shadow. One of the hallmarks of his style, his use of light is a subject of countless writings. He refined light and shade into finer and finer nuances until they blended with one another.
He was a unique interpreter of the Protestant conception of scripture as seen in “The Return of the Prodigal Son,”
Rembrandt produced nearly 70 self-portraits in various mediums during his life. I selected this one as it was close to the time of his painting of “The Prodigal Son.”
The spiritual quality of his religious works carried over into his later portraits. Light and dark are not in conflict with one another, but merge subtly and softly, producing the intriguing visual equivalent of quietness. There is a mood of tranquil meditation, philosophical resignation, musing recollection – emotional tones heard only in silence.
In this late “Self Portrait” (c. 1659-60) his interest in revealing his soul is evident in the attention given to his expressive face. Contributing to this focus is the controlled use of light and nonspecific setting.
This oil on canvas. 3’8″ x 3’1″ is at the Kenwood House, London, England.
Travel Tip: If you ever get a chance to visit St. Petersburg, Russia, a visit to the Hermitage is a must-see. Like the Paris Louvre or London’s British Museum, one needs to plan a strategy and allow at least 4 hours of time to see the highlights. We used a guide the one time I visited which was helpful in navigating this huge complex in a foreign country. However, if I have the privilege to visit again, I plan to be more personally prepared with my own list of “must see art” and once I get the “lay of the land,” see if I can allow some extra time to explore on my own.
Kleiner, Fred S. Gardner’s Art through the Ages, A Global Study, 14th edition. Pages 706-708.
barnebys.com/blog/the-art-of-fatherhood. 15 June 2021.
Related Rembrandt Posts
Read more on Rembrandt’s Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, on my Museum at the Mall blog.
Read more on Rembrandt’s Lucretia at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, MN.