The story of the Return of the Prodigal son is recounted in the Gospel of Luke (15:11-32). According to the parable, a father divides his inheritance among his two sons, the younger of whom immediately spends the money thoughtlessly and suffers when famine strikes. He returns home to beg his father's help and is embraced with open arms, notwithstanding the complaints of his elder brother who, having continually labored at home, finds this reception unfair. The father, whose behavior serves as an example of the prospect of redemption for all sinners, reminds his elder son that they should still celebrate the young man's return: “But it was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:32). In this haunting nocturnal depiction of the story, the faithful son enters at right on horseback, accompanied by his dogs and greeted by a page who brings him news of the momentous occasion. The wayward son, kneeling at his father's feet – the dirty soles of his shoes evidence of his recent work as a swineherd – appears at center, while at lower left a servant has captured a fattened cow which he has begun to prepare for the imminent feast.
When this remarkable canvas reemerged from obscurity at a New York auction in 1991, it was incorrectly catalogued as “Francesco Bassano”. At this time, Alessandro Ballarin was compiling his extensive study on Jacopo Bassano, which was published in 1995. Professor Ballarin had not been to the New York sale and only knew The Return of the Prodigal Son from photographs; nevertheless, he recognized it as the prototype for a well-known engraving of 1763 by Pietro Monaco (fig. 1), whose inscription indicates the painting was then in the collection of Count Francesco Savorgnan in his palace at San Geremia, Venice. A few years later, Professor Ballarin had the opportunity to inspect the painting firsthand, and resolved “any doubt regarding...its autograph nature” as a work by Jacopo (written communication, 30 April 1999).
As Professor Ballarin has noted, this Return of the Prodigal son dates to c. 1572, a pivotal moment in Jacopo's career which resolves the arc of development Ballarin characterizes as among the artist's “most richly innovative”, during which he continually sought “ever more startling results”. Described by Ballarin as “a milestone in the development of Bassano's art”, The Return of the Prodigal Son is preceded by the important Adoration of the Shepherds now in the Museo Civico in Bassano (1568) and the San Rocco altarpiece of the same subject, now in the Pinacoteca Brera in Milan (1570). Comparable in date to the artist's Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence altarpiece in the Cathedral of Belluno, it in turn presages the Sermon of Saint Paul at Marostica and Entombment at Padua, both dated 1574.
Here, as Ballarin notes, Bassano has begun to explore space in a new way: arranging the architectural elements of the composition along diagonal lines and giving careful consideration to scale, the artist has created a scene through which the viewer's eye moves fluidly as objects recede naturally into space. Indeed, Professor Ballarin's notes from his trip to inspect the painting for the first time include observations about the “optical scaling of space” and “a measured progression of the background light, along the diagonal traced by the façades of the buildings”. Professor Ballarin's goes on to elucidate the picture's luminosity of color and astounding effects of light, describing the silvery highlights and transparent glazes as “the true protagonists of the composition.”
Bassano's vigorous application of paint alla prima, or wet-into-wet, enhances these details. X-rays taken of the present work reveal the extent of the artist's confident brushwork and the degree to which he continually re-styled the composition as he went along, as evidenced by numerous pentimenti still visible on the canvas. The characteristically fragmented brushstrokes stand out “all separate and pure”, as Ballarin says, and yet converge to give an impression of exceptional delicacy and lightness. Describing the butcher at lower left, Ballarin writes: “Observe the construction of the ear: with bits of more lustrous black applied with the tip of the brush; and a flash of white on the temple, like lightning. Another lightning of red for the lips, and a rush of cool – frigid – white bordering the tunic as if to frame the highlighted neck and bust.” This 'breaking' of tones presages the art of Velazquez and makes the picture's effervescent effect of twilight, diffused across the receding landscape, at the heart of Jacopo's achievement here.
Another composition showing the Return of the Prodigal Son, also considered autograph by Ballarin and dated to c. 1572, is now in the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery. Jacopo would not return to this theme until some six years later, when he revisited it alongside his son Francesco for the painting now in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in Rome. The present work, however, is the only known treatment of this subject by Bassano in a horizontal format, and there is no question that it served as the inspiration for Monaco's engraving. Ballarin has used the Savorgnan provenance of Jacopo's Return of the Prodigal Son to advance the hypothesis that it was painted as a pair with his son Francesco's Departure of Abraham for Canaan (National Gallery, London), also engraved by Monaco during its time at San Geremia. As such it may belong to a group of similarly paired paintings created for private clientele and featuring scenes from the Old and New Testament, in which the hands of father and son can be compared.
A red and black chalk drawing of a dog, now in Liverpool (fig. 2), may have been preparatory to the present composition.