Thomas Mann, in the preface to “Joseph and his brothers”, recounts how his typist, while returning the manuscript, thanked him for finally getting to know what really happened back then.
However naive, this is quite close to how I feel about this painting — especially now, after I’ve been working on a painting study of it for about half a year (on and off). Maybe (I am beginning to suspect) there is a similarity between making a painting study of a painting and typing a novel: you get closer to the artist’s inner space than when just looking or just reading.
Paradoxically, what Rembrandt does in this painting is almost completely opposite to what Thomas Mann did. Mann expanded sketchy Bible stories into an (almost) War-and-Peace-length novel, adding so many, and so richly beautiful, material and psychological details that it is indeed hard to imagine how one could have written all that without somehow invisibly witnessing all the events in the process of their unfolding.
In contrast to this, Rembrandt strips his Bible story of almost all its details, and compresses it into a single scene. And this scene is very still: it recreates one of those moments that feel like eternity when you are within the moment itself. It is T.S. Eliot’s still point of the turning world.
This is an unbelievably great painting; possibly, one of the greatest paintings ever painted. And with what’s going on in the world all around us, I think we might now need it more than ever — we need the essence of what it shows, the connection to stillness it gives.
Unfortunately, a lot of this painting’s effect is lost in reproduction — and it is not always possible to just take off and travel to St. Petersburg to see it. So I am going to try and do something I know to be impossible: recreate this effect, the experience of viewing this painting, with the help of Google Art Project’s reproduction, and based my own experience of seeing it and painting it.
This attempt will rely on my words — some information, some suggestions on areas to zoom in to and what to pay attention to, some suggestions of mental gestures and “points of entrance” into the painting. But most of all, of course, it will rely on, as Shakespeare put it, your imaginary forces. But all art relies on them anyway. So let’s just try and see how this works out (it will help if the Google Art Project reproduction is opened in another tab of your browser).
Here is the first thing I want to draw your attention to:
The scene shown to us by Rembrandt never happened in the original Bible story.
In the story, as told by Christ (Luke 15: 11-32), the younger son of a rich man goes away and squanders his share of inheritance in sinful life. He is broke and starving, and it strikes him that he is actually worse off than his father’s servants. So he returns to his father’s house, with the intent to ask him to take him back as a servant (since he no longer feels that he deserves to be a son). But the father runs out to meet him, orders his servants to bring him the best robe, gives him a ring, and has a fattened calf killed for the celebratory feast. When his elder, righteous son — who has been staying with him, and obeying him, all along — returns, he doesn’t even want to take part in this feast, so jealous he is. He complains that his father has never given him so much as a goat to celebrate with his friends, let alone a fattened calf. But the old man explains to him that his younger son was dead, and is now alive — so there is a reason to celebrate after all.
Where is Rembrandt’s scene in the story? It is, quite obviously, the first embrace between the father and his prodigal son: the son is still in his rags. But it takes place at the house, not in the field. And, most importantly, the elder son is present here to witness it, even though he is supposed to be out in the fields till much later: he is the rightmost (and most “upright”) figure in the painting, with his arms crossed in a gesture of disdain. The whole story, from its beginning to its very end, is compressed into a single scene.
But, after all, it’s a parable. We are supposed to understand that the story of prodigal son is about something else, not about the calf and the robe and the ring. This something else is what Rembrandt paints: he shows us how he understands the intended meaning of the story.
This is a huge painting, so the figures are life-size. If you stand in front of this painting, it is as though you become a part of the scene. And this offers you a choice: you can choose your part to play.
Rembrandt invites the viewer to be the prodigal son: to make the mental gesture of just stepping into the painting and falling down on their knees. That’s how the scene is designed: if you are in front of the original, this inner gesture almost inevitably happens, even without conscious intent: seeing the son’s pose, and feeling it inside (to some extent) are almost the same thing, they happen simultaneously.
If you are only looking at a small reproduction, this connection can only happen if you make a conscious choice to feel this inner gesture while looking at the son. And if you do, you find yourself right there in this space, being loved and accepted beyond what you expect and deserve. Van Gogh thought that paintings should give their viewers consolation. So here is the consolation offered by Rembrandt, in its purest, distilled, quintessential form.
But by default, without this inner gesture of surrender, you remain one of the people who witness this moment of love shared by others. You become one of those who are there around the father and the son. What do you feel when you happen to witness such a moment of love, a moment you are not a part of? How do you react?
There are two men in the painting who witness the embrace. The man standing on the right is evidently the elder brother, but the one who is sitting is somewhat more mysterious. The original story offers no explanation for his appearance in this scene (he cannot be a servant, because his dress is too expensive). And I only realised his “function” in the overall structure of this painting just recently, in the process of doing my own painting study of it.
This man is here to offer an alternative to the elder brother’s reaction. If you happen to witness a moment of love, you can react with scepticism, jealousy, and disdain; this is the elder brother’s choice. But you can also choose to witness it for the miracle it is — with fascination, and trust, and compassion. This choice makes you a participant in this moment, includes you in the circle of love. And this is the choice represented by the sitting man (I believe, by the way, that the makers of the “Love Actually” movie had a similar message in mind with their footage of embraces in the arrivals lobby of Heathrow).