To this day, Steen remains one of the most admired and popular of seventeenth-century Dutch painters. His wide variety of subjects—portraits, genre scenes of the middle and lower classes engaged in daily activities, serenely elegant images of upper-class life, witty portrayals of everyday occurrences, and religious and mythological stories—are all imbued with very human and often moving observation. The New Testament story of the youth who spent his inheritance on riotous living and, realizing his foolishness, returned home in poverty to beg his father’s forgiveness, was popular both among the Protestant majority in the Netherlands at that time, as well as its Catholic minority, of which Steen was a member. Ultimately, of course, the parable of divine grace and atonement speaks of the enduring compassion of a loving God the Father towards man.
Inspired by the words of the return narrative (Luke 15:20-27), but typically adding his own vignette details, Steen opens up the space into the distance at right, where the prodigal son’s diligent elder brother, who remained faithful to his father, is being informed of the return. A servant brings the fine robes requested by the father for his impoverished son. At centre, the prodigal’s genuine repentance and utter destitution are juxtaposed with the father’s tender compassion. In an arch created by the two figures, the father bends towards his son, supporting his clasped hands of entreaty. A horn is sounded in celebration, a pet dog greets the returned son, and the fatted calf is brought in for the feast. Inspired by an etching by Rembrandt, as well as an engraving by Van Leyden, Steen has nonetheless significantly revised and rethought the story. Grand in scale and profound in the sincerity of its emotional evocation, The Return of the Prodigal Son is among the greatest achievements of this artist.