The Prodigal Son


Peter Paul Rubens
Siegen 1577 - Antwerp 1640
oil on panel
111 x 159 cm
Inventory number 781

The biblical parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15 :11-32) tells the story of how the youngest of two sons demands that his father pay him his share of his inheritance. Having received the money, he leaves for a distant country and squanders it all. When famine breaks out, he takes a job tending pigs at a farm. Eventually, he repents and returns to his father, who forgives him. This panel by Peter Paul Rubens is a 'human-sized' Baroque painting. The religious theme is not overemphasised. The focus is very much on the barn, the animals and the dusky landscape. In the far right of the composition, we notice the prodigal son, hungry and begging the stable-maid for some swine fodder. The couple are spied upon by a farm hand from behind a strut. The ingenious composition of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines guides the viewer’s eyes to every corner of the panel, from the horses and stable boy to the figures with the candles, along the cows and the hungry pigs to the prodigal son.


However realistic the painting may appear, this is not an existing barn. Rubens liked to work out in the countryside, sketching barns, farm equipment and animals. He used these drawings as a basis for subsequent compositions. The wagon in the far right, for example, also appears in a previous work.

In 2007, this painting was the focus of an extensive study by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp.

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