The Prodigal Son
Oil on canvas
39 1/2 x 47 in.
Niedersachsische Landesgalerie, Hannover
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Stephan Lackner writes:
"The prodigal son is shown here "devouring his living with harlots," according to Saint Luke's picturesque account. But his "riotous living" brings him no joy; glum and unseeing, he stares into emptiness, ignoring the goblets and the full-blown, gaudy women surrounding him.
"Beckmann has chosen to represent the Biblical group in contemporary garb, just as Bruegel, Rembrandt, and many other painters did before him. This heightens the impact and the immediacy of the parable, even while removing the pale, spiritual veil of the "Bible story." The encounter sparkles with color and life.
"The three young, seductive ladies differ widely in appearance. The figure on the right has a typical Egyptian profile, almost a replica of a Pharaoh's daughter from the fourteenth century B.C. The dusky skin of the statuesque, dignified Negro girl contrasts with the creamy hues of the Nordic woman who seems to claim the forlorn young man as her exclusive property. This divergence of types illustrates the Gospel's pronouncement that the prodigal son "took his journey into a far country." The exotic females, with their brilliantly colored dresses, make the lost traveler appear drab and somewhat mousy. His thoughts are roaming; is he thinking back to the strict yet comfortable ambiance of his father's house? The activities of "wasting his substance" have lost their appeal, and, obviously, he does not seem to have much substance left.
"In spite of the fable's moralism, the painter's visual sympathy lies with the picturesque prostitutes. They are shown having fun; the stern old madam, half-hidden by a screen on the right, is definitely needed to remind them that this visit is a business transaction. Beckmann does not criticize these women. The moral of the tale lies in the sallow, sad face of the prodigal son and in the dejected gesture of his hands.
"When Beckmann painted a "story," it expressed the current state of his own soul. This is the Expressionist element which distinguishes his art from nineteenth-century historicism. In the case of The Prodigal Son, we can trace this personal note very distinctly. Saint Luke speaks of a "journey into a far country." In Beckmann's diary, during the time when he worked on The Prodigal Son, there occurs an enigmatic, visionary sentence (St. Louis, February 9, 1949): "Beckmann at last moved to a far, big country, and slowly we saw his figure growing more indistinct. Finally it disappeared entirely in uncertain distances."