Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. Why it’s a masterpiece

Rembrandt. Return of the Prodigal Son.
Rembrandt. Return of the Prodigal Son. 1669. The State Hermitage Museum

Return of the Prodigal Son. Old father’s mind is at peace again. His youngest son has come back. He doesn’t hesitate to forgive him for the dissipated heritage. No reproaches. Only mercy. All-forgiving parental love.

And what about the son? He reached the depths of despair. Poor and ragged, he forgot his pride. He fell to his knees. Feeling incredible relief. Since he was welcome.

Rembrandt pained the Prodigal Son a few months before his death. This is the highlight of his work. His main masterpiece. The one that gathers crowds in the Hermitage every day. Why is it so attractive to viewers?

Special interpretation of the paroemia

You see a story from a biblical paroemia. A father had two sons. The younger claimed his part of the heritage. After getting the money easily, he left to see the world and enjoy his life. Parties, card games, plenty of booze. But the money disappeared quickly. He no longer had anything to live on.

Ahead hunger, cold, humiliation. Got a job as a swineherd. To eat pigs food. But this life was so foodless that the son understood. The only way out is to return to his father. And ask to give him any work. Since his workers were better fed than he his own son.

And here he is at his fathers home. Hes meeting his father. It is that very episode of the paroemia that many artists chose for their paintings. But Rembrandts work is completely different from those of his contemporaries.

Look at Jan Steens painting.

Jan Steen. Return of the Prodigal Son.
Jan Steen. Return of the Prodigal Son. 1668-1670. A private collection.

Unlike Rembrandt, Jan Steen was very popular. Since his works absolutely corresponded to the tastes of customers of those days. Who wanted to be amused. Their decent and full-bellied life.

That’s why a woman is holding a fruit basket on her head. That’s why we see a calf, which the delighted father ordered to slaughter upon his sons return. Someone even is blowing a horn. To announce a happy event in the family to the neighbors.

Now, let’s compare this life scene with Rembrandt’s painting. Who has omitted all the minor details. We cant even see the sons face. Rembrandt does everything to keep us focused on the main thing. On the main characters’ feelings.

In other countries, similar tastes prevailed. The artists added impressive details. Thus, a Spanish artist Murillo even painted clothes on a tray, which the father ordered to give to the returned son.

We can also see the same poor calf. Which they want to cook to celebrate the festive event.

Murillo. Return of the Prodigal Son.
Murillo. Return of the Prodigal Son. 1667-1670. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, USA.

Can you imagine this calf at Rembrandts painting?

Of course not. Rembrandts painting tells completely another story. Not about accouterments of generosity. Its about the fathers inner feelings.

Which are much more difficult to depict. But Rembrandt has done it so well that all the accouterments seem ridiculous. Thats his genius.

Rembrandts technique

Rembrandt is fully focused on conveying the inner world of his characters. This influences his technique. We can’t see the standard color scheme here. What we can see is a fusion of red, brown, and golden shades.
The paint strokes are applied impulsively, as if carelessly. The artist doesn’t hide them. No smoothness.

Rembrandt. Return of the Prodigal Son. Fragment.
Rembrandt. Return of the Prodigal Son. Fragment. 1669. The State Hermitage Museum.

Shading in the painting is uncommon as well. The main characters are illuminated by a dim source of light. The brightest spot is the fathers forehead. The characters are surrounded by twilight. Which merges into almost absolute darkness in the background. Such transitions from light to shadow make the painting more emotional.

No external beauty

Rembrandt didnt care about attractive appearance of a human. His Prodigal Son is really tormented by life. His look is unpleasant. A hole in the back of his clothes. Sore feet. A boldskull.

Rembrandt. Return of the Prodigal Son. Fragment.
Rembrandt. Return of the Prodigal Son. Fragment. 1669. The State Hermitage Museum.

And now, lets look at the Prodigal Son by Nikolay Losev.

Indeed, his clothes are worn out. Even too much. They look more like a theatrical attribute. Falseone, of course. After all, under this holey rag, there is a muscular, beautiful body. Moreover, he has a nice haircut as well. The father in white clothes looks more like a fairy-tale prophet. Very beautiful. Even the dog looks great.

Nikolay Losev. Return of the Prodigal Son.
Nikolay Losev. Return of the Prodigal Son. 1882. The national art museum of the Republic of Belarus.

And now compare this painting with Rembrandts artwork. And youll realize who has made it more lifelike. More emotional.

Rembrandts personal tragedy

Rembrandt created the Prodigal Son immediately after facing his personal tragedy. His son Titus died. He just turned 26.

He was his first wifes son. Born by his beloved Saskia. Who died when the boy was only 10 months old. The baby was very wanted. Before him, the couple lost three children in infancy.

Titus was a very loving son. He believed in his fathers genius. And did everything possible so that his father could continue to create.

Rembrandt. Titus as a monk.
Rembrandt. Titus as a monk. 1660. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

After the creditors deprived Rembrandt of the house and his rich collection, he had to move to the city outskirts.

As soon as Titus grew up, he set up a business selling paintings. His fathers paintings sold hard. The son sold other artists paintings. To give his father an opportunity to work peacefully in his studio.

But Titus died of phthisis.

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Only work could save Rembrandt from going absolutely crazy. Not to think about suicide.

He decided to paint the Prodigal Son. As an incarnation of his dream. To hug his son again one day. The feeble, old, and sick. Just like Rembrandt himself at that time. Capable of giving a light touch only. If only to hug.

The depth of fathers love is conveyed through brush and paint. We feel empathy for Rembrandt. Although we dont realize it. But these unconscious feelings attract our eyes to the painting even stronger

“You have to die several times to paint like this” Van Gogh (about Rembrandt).

Also read my articles about other works of Rembrandt:

Why do we see TWO girls on Rembrandt’s Night Watch?

Rembrandt “Ahaseurus and Haman at the Feast of Esther”


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Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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