Colnaghi Foundation Journal 01 - Page 13

MATTIA PRETI / The Return of the Prodigal Son
MATTIA PRETI / The Return of the Prodigal Son
Fig. 2 / Mattia Preti, The
Return of the Prodigal Son,
oil on canvas, 150 x 122 cm,
acquired from Colnaghi in
2016 by a Private Collector.
Fig. 3 / Mattia Preti, The
Return of the Prodigal Son,
oil on canvas, 122 x 171 cm,
Private Collection.
expressive compassion of the old father’s tired face. His
outstretched arms offer shelter, underlining the strong
moral theme of the story which the artist had obviously
considered very profoundly.
Preti depicted ten versions of this theme, spanning his
career and dating from the early 1630s to the 1670s.
They all show the moment of the iconic embrace, but
vary in size and format from those reduced to the two
protagonists, to more elaborate narratives containing
wider scenes with ten life-size figures. The larger scenes
include other figures from the parable, namely the older
son, the father’s servants, and other members of his
household. Although there is one recorded instance of
Preti painting another scene from the story, an untraced
Prodigal Son Feasting,3 he, unlike Guercino, does not seem
to represent different moments from the tale, and all his
surviving works focus on the moment of reconciliation.
The earlier of the two versions of The Return of the
Prodigal Son considered here (see fig. 1) (124 x 104 cm,
Private Foundation), first appeared on the art market in
2015. Of remarkable technical quality, it probably dates
from the period between the late 1640s and the mid1650s, when the artist had consolidated his position
as one of the foremost painters in Rome, or when he
had just moved to Naples. In his virile forms and al
naturale renditions, Preti concentrates on the embrace
between father and son, presenting the scene within a
strong chiaroscuro setting and using a restricted palette,
both of which reveal his Caravaggist background. The
confidence of brushwork, monumentality of forms,
movement, and physical structure of the figures point
towards Preti’s mature style and lend further support to
the date suggested above.
The pose of the father and son are taken from the
earliest known representation of the subject that Preti
painted (fig. 3) (122 x 171 cm, Private Collection),
which is in turn clearly indebted to earlier prototypes,
such as Maerten van Heemskerck’s woodcut print
of the subject (ca. 1548) (fig. 4). The latter had also


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