All masterpieces

The Prodigal Son

Peter Paul Rubens
  • Object number 781
  • Date (1618)
  • Dimensions 108 × 156 cm
  • Medium Oil on panel
Read more
Schilderij De verloren zoon van Peter Paul Rubens

Parable of the Prodigal Son

Rubens focuses in this work on the New Testament story of the Prodigal Son. According to the Parable, told by Jesus, the youngest of two sons demands his future inheritance from his father. He then takes the money, travels to a distant land, and blows the lot. Stricken by hunger, the young man takes a job as a swineherd to survive. But even the pigs’ food is denied to him. Realizing the error of his ways, he returns home full of remorse, where his father forgives him.

Baroque painting based on sketches

Can you see the Prodigal Son in the painting? Rubens places him in the lower right corner, where he pleads with the maid for some pig food to eat. The hungry pigs and piglets crowd around the trough. Inside the barn, concealed behind a wooden post, a stableman keeps a wary eye on the two of them. Rubens based his painting of The Prodigal Son on separate sketches he made in the countryside. He was fond of drawing barns, farm equipment and animals. These sketches were then incorporated in a variety of compositions. The barn looks realistic, but experts believe it never existed in reality: it is a combination of sketches of different stables. The cart on the far right also crops up in another landscape painting by Rubens.

Rubens as a landscape painter

This panel by Peter Paul Rubens is a painting on a human scale. Its format is perfect for a living room. The atmosphere of the scene is relaxed. All sorts of farming equipment is spread around casually and the religious element is not over-emphasized. Very different from a Baroque altarpiece. All the attention is focused here on the barn, the animals and the twilight landscape. Nevertheless, there is a lot more going on here than simply the day-to-day work on a busy Flemish farm: the animals, for instance, symbolize vice and allude to sinful behaviour.

Brilliant balancing act

How do you create a coherent masterpiece based on a variety of separate elements? The Prodigal Son answers that question. The composition as a whole is one big balancing act. Rubens plays brilliantly with horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines in a way that guides your eye across the entire panel. From the horses and their stable hand, via the candles, past the cows and the hungry pigs, to the spot where the Prodigal Son kneels. The open section of the barn, meanwhile, allows the Flemish master to create a natural transition from the interior to the countryside beyond.

Rubens plays with shades of brown

Rubens has opted for a bold combination of viewpoints in his composition. And he uses a predominantly brown palette, from which he applies an immense variety of different tones. A few candles light up the dark interior, while outside, the setting sun reddens the sky. Rubens held onto this masterpiece until his death. Nowadays, it is one of the highlights of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Antwerp.

Find out more

Schilderij Venus Frigida van Peter Paul Rubens
Peter Paul Rubens

He’s one of the world’s most famous painters. And inextricably linked to Antwerp. But what makes Rubens so special?

Schilderij Heilige familie met de papegaai van Peter Paul Rubens
Five special Rubens restorations

The restoration workshop has been hard at work. Several exceptional works by Peter Paul Rubens are restored in recent years. An overview.

Read more