Luke 15:11 Then Jesus[a] said, “There was a man who had two sons.
Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Rembrandt and Saskia in the Scene of the Prodigal Son in the Tavern, 1635, Oil on Canvas, Rembrandt van Rijn, 1606-1669
Like other young men in Holland during the early seventeenth century, Rembrandt’s formal education consisted of studying Latin and Religion but when his skills in drawing became apparent, he was guided toward a formal study of art. After an apprenticeship in the studio of Pieter Lastman in Amsterdam, Rembrandt opened a studio in Leyden and was recognized for his exceptional work. His success led him back to Amsterdam which was the most prosperous city in Europe at that time. People of wealth liked having their portraits painted and Rembrandt excelled in portraiture. This brought fame and wealth but he did not manage money well. Soon he was in debt and personal tragedies as well became an ongoing part of his life.
Before financial and personal problems developed, Rembrandt married Saskia. He idolized her and painted her as the Roman goddess, Flora. A person not knowing anything about this painting might regard it simply as a portrait of a woman with flowers but symbolic content and subtexts are often found in an artist’s work. In this portrait, Rembrandt’s admiration and love for Saskia is revealed in his portrayal of her as Flora, the goddess of flowers and springtime. Soon after painting Flora, Rembrandt painted a double portrait representing a blissful time in their recent marriage; the two were young and happy. This painting’s subject, like the “Flora,” also may be appreciated for its subject; in it we see a celebration that does not seem to represent anything other than what it appears to be. Yet a tavern is part of this painting’s subtext and there are similarities between Rembrandt’s drawings of the prodigal son in the tavern and this double portrait.
In 1925, German scholar Wilhem Valentiner concluded that Rembrandt and Saskia are playing roles. Just as an actor may direct a movie as well as play a leading role in it, Rembrandt has cast himself in the role of the wastrel prodigal son; his wife, Saskia, is acting as a carefree prostitute. Valentiner’s conclusion has been supported by an x-ray analysis that indicates the composition once contained a woman playing a lute as well as objects that are associated with a tavern. Rembrandt painted over them as the two principal figures became the object of his attention.
Rembrandt’s penchant for casting family members and people from his community as subjects in scenes continued throughout his life. His study of Latin was likely the source of an early interest in Roman subjects such as Saskia in the role of Flora. As he became older, his interest in biblical themes increased greatly.
Unlike almost every other artist in Europe, Rembrandt did not go to Italy to study the classics. Elements of classicism and its tendency toward formality are not found in his work. Whereas classicism tends to guide a viewer to an intellectual appreciation, the works of Rembrandt contain a sense of emotional warmth and psychological insight.
Hovak Najarian © 2013