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Motif of the prodigal son in Rembrandt's art Kruschen, Franziska Margarete Leopoldine


The following study presents a visual analysis of those works by Rembrandt associated with the Prodigal Son story. Essentially, they depict one of two episodes from that story; the Prodigal Son among the harlots in the tavern and his return to his father's house. Tumpel, in his dissertation of 1968, parts of which have been published in the Nederlands Kunsthistorisch Jaarboek of 1969, has presented the thesis that Rembrandt's interpretation of the Bible was not as subjective as had been previously supposed, but was, in fact heavily dependent on graphic works of the 16th and 17th Centuries, which represent the new Baroque iconography. The painting in the Dresden Gemäldegalerie, of himself dressed as a cavalier with a woman on his knee, which at once represents a double portrait and a scene of the Prodigal Son in the tavern, is in its imagery strongly rooted in a northern tradition of moralistic tavern scenes. This tradition begins with paintings, such as Lucas van Leyden's "Cardplayers", in Munich, dated c. 1520, or Van Hemessen's "Prodigal Son", signed and dated 1536, in the Brussel's Museum. While Rembrandt's painting represents a scene from the Biblical story, its importance lies not in its narrative aspect, but in its moralistic message. Rembrandt, in his depiction of the Prodigal Son's return, both in his 1636 etching and in his later painting in the Hermitage is again within a well established pictorial tradition, popular particularily in Counter-Reformation Italy, but found also in Northern graphic works. Rembrandt uses a graphic example as a direct prototype for his etching. The changes that he makes in his model are, however, significant, for they suggest a conscious attempt to redefine its iconographic implications. The Hermitage painting incorporates even greater changes. In it he has placed a far greater emphasis on the union of father and son, by his choice of composition, the lighting and by the expressions of peace and serenity in the faces of the two figures. He has also placed an unprecedented importance on a third figure; a standing figure, dressed in red, to the right of the main group, whose relationship to that group is, however, ambiguous. He is possibly the older brother. His attribution to Rembrandt, as well as that of the other surrounding figures, has been questioned. The changes may express Rembrandt's personal religious orientation, although more definite conclusions on the painting's subject are, at this moment, immature.

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