the prodigal son in the tavern rembrandt
The left side of the canvas was cut, perhaps by the artist himself, to remove secondary characters and focus the observer’s attention on the main theme.
It portrays two people who had been identified as Rembrandt himself and his wife Saskia. In the Protestant contemporary world, the theme of the prodigal son was a frequent subject for works of art due to its moral background. Rembrandt himself painted a Return of the Prodigal Son in 1669.
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It’s a subject that Rembrandt illustrated several times, in drawings, etching, and paintings. And in some ways parallels Rembrandt’s own life. As a talented young painter, Rembrandt’s reputation grows. He marries Saskia, daughter of a prominent family, his commissions grow exponentially. He lives extravagantly. But when Saskia dies, his fortunes seem to die with her, and he becomes poor.
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.
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.
However, the father welcomes his younger son back and celebrates his return as he recognizes how his youngest son has experienced his own redemption story. The older son refuses to celebrate his brother’s return; however, the father encourages celebration as he saw his younger son lose himself and, upon his return home, find himself.
His portraits were commonly of his contemporaries and his self-portraits helped create a story of his life while demonstrating his humble and sincere nature. His biblical representations showed his knowledge while also providing a glimpse into his compassion for humanity and familiarity with the people of his country.
Part of the way he does this is by the contrasting light on the old man’s eyes: his left shaded with black, the right eye full of light, the head tilted to the left, the arms extending out of the scarlet robe (revealing extraordinarily beautiful undergarments) and hands placed with utmost tenderness on the son’s back (his head, though turned, is resting on his father’s chest).
“I felt drawn by the intimacy between the three figures (one, very, very faint), the war red of the man’s cloak, the golden yellow of the boy’s tunic, and the mysterious light engulfing them both. But, most of all, it was the hands—the old man’s hands—as they touched the boy’s shoulders that reached me in a place where I had never been reached before.”