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Object details

The Prodigal Son
c. 1618
108 × 156,2 cm
Inventory number: 

More about this work

Kneeling in the right foreground is the Prodigal Son, whose story is told by the evangelist Luke (15:11-32). As a young man he had claimed his inheritance, which he then frittered away. During an ensuing famine he was forced to seek work as a swineherd on a farm, and although the pigs were fed, he was not. That brought him to his senses, which is the moment captured in this painting. He returned home, where his father received his son, who ‘was lost, and is found’, with open arms, which infuriated his exemplary brother.

Experts agree that Rubens painted this entire picture himself, which is not the case with most of the works that are attributed to him or his studio. They were usually made with the aid of assistants. The Prodigal Son was not commissioned. Rubens made it on his own initiative, and then kept it for the rest of his life in his private collection. It was only sold after his death at the auction of his phenomenal art collection. It dates from around 1618, but Rubens may have continued working on it later. There are several visible additions, such as the crown of the tree beyond the pigsty.

The works by Rubens in the KMSKA are mainly altarpieces, large paintings with colossal figures that were painted for churches. The Prodigal Son is remarkably small, by comparison. In that respect it is much closer to the works by Rubens’s colleague and good friend Jan Brueghel, a son of Pieter. He painted small pictures with a wealth of animals, plants and pieces of machinery. A contemporary described him as the opposite of Rubens. In the period when The Prodigal Son was made, Rubens and Bruegel were working together on various small paintings. Rubens usually did the figures, and Brueghel everything around them. One well-known example is The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man (circa 1615). Some authors are convinced that the many details in The Prodigal Son have a specific meaning. The doves at the back, for instance, are supposed to symbolise the son’s dissolute life, and the dog at the front the devil’s temptations. In fact, Rubens probably wanted to display his wide knowledge with this teeming panel. He was no stranger to anything, not even rustic life on a farm.

Putting together a composition like The Prodigal Son took lot of study. For instance, Rubens visited farms outside the Antwerp city walls and made countless drawings of animals and agricultural machinery. Some of those drawings have survived, among them the one of the cart behind the Prodigal Son. He would then go back to his studio and put those separate elements together like a puzzle to form a painting. So the cowshed as a whole was his invention. He used drawings of that kind in several different paintings, not just one, and that cart also appears in his landscapes.

The setting in the painting is so highly worked up that the central story of the Prodigal Son at the bottom right is almost swallowed up. So much so that some art historians have wondered whether the painting is an illustration of a biblical story or a landscape with a slice of peasant life. In fact, it does not allow itself to be pigeonholed either way, as can be seen from descriptions by contemporaries. It is listed in Rubens’s probate inventory as ‘the Prodigal Son in a cowshed’, covering both bases at once.

The inscription ‘the Prodigal Son’ reveals that the striking and ornate decorated frame was made in Great Britain. The painting was in English collections in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it is not clear when it acquired that decorative frame.

Acquisition history

Restoration sponsored by BNP Parisbas Fortis, 2005
purchase: kunsthandelaar Léon Gauchez, 1894

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