Murillo's great talent for dramatic painting is apparent in this monumental depiction of the familiar parable of the prodigal son, an allegory of repentance and divine forgiveness. With players and props effectively placed to underscore the drama, it is reminiscent of a well-staged theater piece.
The artist selected the essential elements of the story's climax: the penitent son welcomed home by his forgiving father; the rich garments and ring that signify the errant son's restoration to his former position in the family; and the fatted calf being led to the slaughter for the celebratory banquet. The larger-than-life, central, pyramidal grouping of father and son dominates the picture, while the richest color is reserved for the servant bearing the new garments. Murillo may have chosen to emphasize that aspect of the parable -- symbolic of charity -- because of the nature of the commission. The Return of the Prodigal Son was one of eight huge canvases painted for the Church of the Hospital of Saint George in Seville, a hospice for the homeless and hungry.
Murillo's model was the life around him; part of the appeal of this canvas lies in its human touches -- the realism of the prodigal's dirty feet, the puppy jumping up to greet his master, and perhaps most of all, the ingenuous smile of the little urchin leading the calf.
Commissioned for the Hospital de la Caridad [Hospital of Charity], Seville; removed by government decree to Alcázar, Seville, 1810, from whence it was taken to Paris in 1812 by Marshal Nicolas Jean de Dieu Soult, Duke of Dalmatia [1769-1851]; sold 1835 to George Granville Sutherland-Leveson-Gower [1786-1861], 2nd duke of Sutherland, Stafford House, London; by descent through the dukes of Sutherland to George Granville Sutherland-Leveson-Gower [1888-1963], 5th duke of Sutherland; sold 7 January 1948 to (Thomas Agnew & Sons, Ltd, London); sold 30 December 1948 to the Avalon Foundation, New York; gift 1948 to NGA.
- British Institution, London, 1836, no. 22.
- Spanish Old Masters, Grafton Galleries, London, 1913-1914, 88-89, no. 83.
- Seventeenth-Century Art in Europe, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1938, no. 217.
- In Memoriam, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969, unnumbered checklist.
- Bartlolomé Esteban Murillo, 1617-1682, Museo del Prado, Madrid; Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1982-1983, 200, no. 46, color pl. 46.
- Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682): Paintings from American Collections, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 2002, no. 18, repro.
- Ponz, Antonio. Viaje de España. 18 vols. Madrid, 1787-1794: 9:148.
- Céan Bermúdez, Juan A. Diccionario histórico de los más ilustres profesores de las bellas artes en España. 6 vols. Madrid, 1800: 2:52.
- Buchanan, William. Memoirs of Painting. London, 1824: 43-44.
- Réveil, Etienne A. Musée de peinture et de sculpture. 16 vols. Paris, 1829-1834: 5:301.
- Jameson, Anna B. Companion to the Most Celebrated Private Galleries of Art in London. London, 1844: 191.
- Waagen, Gustav Friedrich. Treasures of Art in Great Britain: Being an Account of the Chief Collections of Paintings, Drawings, Sculptures, Illuminated Mss.. 3 vols. Translated by Elizabeth Rigby Eastlake. London, 1854: 2:67-68.
- Curtis, Charles B. Velázquez and Murillo. New York and London, 1883: 116, 195.
- Stirling-Maxwell, William. Annals of the Artists of Spain. 3 vols., London, 1848: 2:864; 3:1431 (also 1891 ed., 4 vols., London, 3:1028; 4:1622).
- Justi, Carl. Murillo. Leipzig, 1892: 64, fig. 20.
- Gómez Imaz, Manuel. Inventario de los cuadros sustraídos por el Gobierno intruso en Sevilla año de 1810. Seville, 1896: 38-41, 61.
- Calvert, Albert F. Murillo: A Biography and Appreciation. London, 1907: 63, 167.
- Mayer, August L. Murillo. Klassiker der Kunst, 22. Stuttgart and Berlin, 1913: 126, repro. (also 1923 ed., 12:131, repro.).
- Montoto, Santiago. Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Estudio biográfico-crítico. Seville, 1923: 97.
- Dorival, Bernard. "Callot modèle de Murillo." Revue des Arts. 2 (1951): 94-101.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Great Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1952: 84, color repro.
- Evans, Grose. Spanish Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1960 (Booklet Number Ten in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.): 32, color repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 309, repro.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 95.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 1:212, color repro.
- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 84, repro.
- Brown, Jonathan. "Hieroglyphs of Death and Salvation: The Decoration of the Church of the Hermandad de la Caridad, Seville." The Art Bulletin 52, no. 3 (September 1970): 265-277, fig. 5. (Reprinted in Images and Ideas in 17th Century Spanish Painting. Princeton, 1978: 128-146.)
- Lipschutz, Ilse H. Spanish Painting and the French Romantics. Cambridge, Mass., 1972: 37.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 250, repro.
- Gaya Nuño, Juan A. L'opera completa di Murillo. Milan, 1978: 109-110, color pl. 53, fig. 253.
- Watson, Ross. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1979: 63, pl. 47.
- Valdivieso, Enrique, and Juan Miguel Serrera. El Hospital de la Caridad de Sevilla. Seville, 1980: pl. 38, no. 1.
- Angulo Iñiguez, Diego. Murillo: Su vida, su arte, su obra. 3 vols. Madrid, 1981: 1:396-398; 2:86-87, figs. 274-277.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 247, no. 316, color repro.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 290, repro.
- Brown, Jonathan, and Richard G. Mann. Spanish Paintings of the Fifteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1990: 109-110, color repro. 111.
- Lectionary Homiletics 3, no. 4 (March 1992): 35, repro.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 87, repro.
- Good News, St. Louis, 1997: 9, repro.
- Tomlinson, Janis. From El Greco to Goya: Painting in Spain, 1561-1828, New York, 1997, no. 51, repro.
- Boeckl, Christine M. “Penitence/Repentance." In Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art. Edited by Helene E. Roberts. 2 vols. Chicago, 1998: 2:723.
- Horgan, Marta. "The Golden Age of Spanish Art." Washington Parent (April 2001): 14, repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 168-169, no. 128, color repro.
The picture is executed on a coarse, loosely woven linen support comprised of three pieces of fabric sewn together, the seams horizontal. It is lined, with a narrow strip of tacking edge left intact. The ground is moderately thick and buff colored. The paint is of paste consistency and applied broadly to emphasize the brushwork. The ground and paint layers are largely intact, although there is some flattening of the paint texture and slight abrasion of the readily soluble colors, especially the thinly applied reds and browns and blacks. The paint surface also exhibits wide-aperture, deeply cupped crackle. The varnish is delaminating from the edges of the cracks.