Is Rembrandt’s ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’ the greatest painting of all time?

The famous artwork is 'a depiction of overwhelming love and forgiveness'

“Your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” Luke 15:32

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669). Photo: Google Art Project/Public Domain

Rembrandt van Rijn was the greatest painter of the Dutch Golden Age — and to some, of any age. Known as both the “painter of light,” and an astute observer of the human spirit, the artist used his unsurpassed technical skills, knowledge of the human heart, and faith to express profound emotions and eternal truths.

Born to a middle class miller’s family in 1606, Rembrandt, like many, left home and went to the big city, (for him, Amsterdam) to seek success. His talent and skills served him well. He created astonishingly life-like portraits of the city’s wealthy merchants, shipbuilders, local politicians, and their families.

Their solidity, sobriety, fine clothes, plump, rosy cheeks and radiant eyes made his subjects seem almost able to leap from the canvas. Rembrandt secured both great reputation and income in his early years as an artist. He could have had a comfortable life, probably progressing from local officials to aristocrats and monarchs. But it was stories from the Bible that inspired him over and over again.

Biblical subjects were considered more worthy of high art at the time, but more importantly to Rembrandt, in them, he found a way to tap into the deep well of the spirit. Christ’s parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32) is one that inspired the artist more than once in his career. His last great painting, completed shortly before his death in 1669, is The Return of the Prodigal Son now in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Several eminent critics have proposed it as the greatest painting of all time.

It’s a depiction of overwhelming love and forgiveness. At more than 8½ feet tall, the figures are life-sized. As one stands, looking upward at the face of the father, it’s as though his tender embrace envelops the viewer, as well. From a deliberately dark background of rich brown and velvety black, three figures emerge, drenched in light. Other shadowy figures can be perceived, but it’s clear they’re not the stars of the scene. The three spotlighted men immediately draw our attention, even though we know the story. Then, it’s the details that bring the parable to life.

An arc of light runs from the feet of the prodigal son up through his ragged clothes and shaven, downcast head, into the arms of his father. The light swells and ascends to the father’s illuminated face, across his brow, and then shoots like an arrow across the picture to the face of the other son … the elder, who remained at home.

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669), detail. Photo: Google Art Project/Public Domain

The closest things to the viewer, at the front edge of the painting, are the feet of the prodigal son. They’re cracked, bare or shod with one broken shoe, and tell the story of travels, hardship, and defeat. His gown is torn. The only remnant of wealth is the dagger on his belt that identifies him as having come from a distinguished family. Despite his poverty, he would not sell this.

He leans into his father’s breast, and there he finds mercy, acceptance, forgiveness, and love. The softness of the father’s red cloak, the poignancy of his look, and the tenderness of his touch are almost palpable. The same red finds an echo in the coat of the brother, linking the father and his elder son. But rather than love, in the elder brother’s face, Rembrandt paints an impassive disdain. He stands apart, rigid and immobile.

A sense of quietude and stillness comes through the painting. To achieve it, Rembrandt chose to alter the timeline of the story. Jesus tells us that the father rushes out to meet the son, while the elder brother stays in the field and refuses to attend the celebration. But, by compressing time so that all three appear together, the artist is able to convey the complexity of many feelings at the prodigal’s return.

“Rembrandt and Saskia in the Parable of the Prodigal Son” by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669). Photo: Google Cultural Institute/ Public Domain

An earlier, more lavish version

The story of the prodigal son must have had a particular relevance for Rembrandt. He painted it more than once. An earlier work, The Prodigal Son in the Tavern, was done in 1637, when Rembrandt was 31, successful, and had just married a beautiful, well-connected, wealthy young wife.

That earlier treatment of the story is a self-portrait showing Rembrandt, with wife Saskia, sitting playfully on his lap, as he raises a drinking glass. Like so many stars that crash and burn, like Christ’s prodigal son in the parable, Rembrandt’s early prosperity didn’t last. The artist lived lavishly and spent profligately, assuming the good times would continue forever. They didn’t. By the time he painted The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt had been bankrupted, his wife had died, his popularity had largely vanished, and he lived in poverty.

‘Redeeming light’

By highlighting this complex moment of repentance and sorrow met with loving forgiveness, Rembrandt conveys a flood of meaning and emotions both personal and universal. The depths of the darkness and the brilliance of the light are his visual tools. Johannes Tauler, the 14th-century Dominican mystic spoke of how “it is in the mysterious darkness that good without limit hides.” Only from the darkest depths, Rembrandt seems to suggest, is there the promise of redeeming light.

The authors of Dutch Art and Architecture 1600–1800 (Yale University Press, 1992) state of the painting: “The observer is roused to a feeling of some extraordinary event. …The whole represents a symbol of homecoming, of the darkness of human existence illuminated by tenderness, of weary and sinful mankind taking refuge in the shelter of God’s mercy.”

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