Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, painted between 1661 and 1669, is a monumental painting in the history of art and stands as Rembrandt’s final canvas – flamboyantly transcending the Baroque with its psychological insight. The parable of the return of the prodigal son was a popular subject during the Renaissance, engraved by Albrecht Dürer amongst others. Rembrandt painted imagined reproductions of several elements of the story, especially the return, which he captured a number of times in his life. The Return of the Prodigal Son is an interpretation of the Christian virtue of mercy, rendered with a solemn eye, and evoking a humane, domestic warmth. Rembrandt’s alarmingly modern realism and spiritual insight is created through the expressive color-scale and brushwork, the powerful light and the almost ritualistic ceremony of the event. The father and son stand out, slightly off-center, in front of a seemingly endless expanse of darkness.
In the Biblical tale a young son who has wasted his inheritance suffers the hardships of a famine and returns home to his father. His return is celebrated by a feast which irks the older son who has worked constantly for his father without fortune or reward. The father reminds the older son that like the parable of the lost sheep, any return to the fold should be a cause for celebration. Rembrandt’s supreme reproduction of the scene is littered with references to the poverty, both material and spiritual, of both parties. Heightening the dramatic reconciliation through the hinting of a wider context, Rembrandt creates an image of forgiveness and embodies the unquestioning love of a father, whose time-worn hands stretch out towards the clinging body of the son. For an artist at the end of his life the painting is a moving evocation of a homecoming, the darkness of the path travelled illuminated by the awaiting destination and the sheltering arms of a patriarch.
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