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The theme of the prodigal son in Rembrandt’s paintings: the greatest evolution of the master’s life and work

Rembrandt Harmens van Rijn was the greatest artist not only of the Dutch Golden age, but of all world art. Known as the” artist of light”, Rembrandt used his unsurpassed technical skills, knowledge of human anatomy, and faith to Express deep emotions and eternal truths. Special attention should be paid to the biblical story of the prodigal son, which reflects the artist’s personal and creative transformations.

Biography

Born into a middle-class Miller’s family in 1606, Rembrandt Harmens van Rijn, like many others at the time, left his father’s home and went to the big city (Amsterdam) to succeed. His talent and skills have served him well. The master created surprisingly realistic portraits of rich merchants, shipbuilders, local politicians and their families. Rembrandt secured an excellent reputation and considerable income in the early years of his career.

At that time, biblical subjects were considered relevant for high art, but more importantly for Rembrandt, the Bible became a tool for the master to understand and contemplate the human spirit. The parable of Christ about the prodigal son is a story from the gospel of Luke 15: 13: “after a few days, the younger son, having gathered everything, went to a far side and there squandered his possessions, living wantonly.” The plot often inspired the artist throughout his life, especially revealed in two paintings – “the Prodigal son in the tavern” (1637) and “the Return of the prodigal son” (1669). Two paintings – two starting points in the biography – two evolutions of the artist’s creativity and life.
“The prodigal son in the tavern»
The first work “Prodigal son in a tavern” reflects the happiest time in the artist’s life. The painting was painted in 1637, when Rembrandt was 31 years old, he had just married a beautiful, rich young wife – Saskia. The left side of the canvas was presumably cut by the artist himself. It depicted minor characters, and Rembrandt wanted to focus the observer’s attention on the main theme. Exhibited in the Dresden gallery (Germany).

Rembrandt portrayed himself in a self-portrait as a reveller and spoilt fate in the midst of his creative glory, personal happiness and countless pleasures, with a glass in his hand and with his beloved woman. By the way, the heroine – Rembrandt’s wife-Saskia. Rembrandt’s prosperity, as well as the rampant image of the prodigal son from the Bible, did not last long. The artist lived lavishly and profligately, assuming that the good times would last forever. But he was wrong. By the time Rembrandt started working on The return of the prodigal son, he was bankrupt. His beloved wife died, his former popularity disappeared, and the artist was overtaken by poverty. A significant symbolic detail is a slate on the wall, indicating that sooner or later everything will have to pay. This is a small hint from the artist to the audience, reminding them that this story has a sequel.

The finale of Rembrandt’s parable is the second version, written in 1669. And it is quite difficult to recognize a pale, exhausted, broken physically and mentally person returning to his father. He had left it in his youth, a gambler, a reckless pleasure-seeker, who had squandered every penny of his inheritance. The artist painted this work just a few months before his death.
“Return of the prodigal son»
Rembrandt’s last large painting, the Return of the prodigal son, was painted in 1669. Now on display in the Hermitage. This is a monumental demonstration of overwhelming love and forgiveness. The characters are depicted in full size. If you look at the picture, standing in front of it, you can really feel how the tender embrace of the father covers the viewer. From a deliberately dark background of rich brown and velvety black, three figures appear, bathed in light. Rembrandt’s calling card is an unknown light emanating from the depths. An arc of light extends from the prodigal son’s feet through his tattered clothes and shaven, bowed head, into his father’s hands, illuminating his blind eyes in the finale. The next point of light is the face of the eldest son, who remained with the father – this is the prototype of conscience.

The most significant thing here is the feet of the prodigal son. They are scarred, naked, and wearing the same worn-out shoes, and they tell a whole story (rampant-mistakes – failure – defeat-remorse). The only thing he has left is a dagger on his belt (it may well be a gift from his father, which he will never sell).
The son leans on his father’s chest, and there he finds mercy, acceptance, forgiveness, and love. His head is shaved-a clue that he has sunk to the bottom. He was a prisoner. The softness of my father’s red robe and the tenderness of his embrace are very palpable. The same red color finds an echo in the older brother’s mantle, linking the father and his eldest son. But instead of love, the older brother’s face is full of contempt and condemnation. He stands aloof, cruel and motionless.
What happened to the main character? With his self-confidence and fine expensive clothes? All that was futile slipped out of him like a husk. At the cost of suffering and loss… the truth dawned on him.

In Holland, a Protestant country where churches did not have painted altars and large paintings on religious themes were rarely painted, Rembrandt voluntarily created a monumental masterpiece in which the painting technique acquired a spiritual character. The artist in the theme of the prodigal son revealed the evolution of his life and work. He literally put himself before the Last Judgment. We can absolutely agree with a number of critics who called “the Return of the prodigal son” the greatest picture of all time.

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