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For Grades 3–8

Art © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Table of Contents

Featured Work
Activity: Look at the Collage Yourself
Part I: Discussion to Do Prior to Showing the Students the Collage
Part II: Discussion to Do While Looking at the Collage
Suggested Additional Activities
New York State Learning Standards and Core Curriculum

Featured Work

Romare Bearden
(American, 1911–1988)
Return of the Prodigal Son, 1967
Mixed media and collage on canvas
50 1/4 x 60 inches (127.6 x 152.4 cm)
Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Armand J. Castellani
Background Information for Educators


This lesson plan was designed to complement the third-grade social studies curriculum. It is based on the collage by Romare Bearden called Return of the Prodigal Son. The work can be discussed on two different levels: one relating to the ancient parable about the prodigal son, and the other based on Bearden's life and contemporary society. Please read this lesson plan all the way through before you begin.

You will be presenting to your class two versions of the same story, set in different times and places, and involving a different set of characters. For each version, you will ask the students the same set of questions.

  • PART I: Discussion to do prior to showing the class the collage: This part of the lesson relates to the parable of the Prodigal Son as related by Jesus in the Christian Bible. Answers to the questions will be based on what the children hear as you read them the story, and other knowledge they have of that particular time and place.
  • PART II: Discussion to do while looking at the collage: This part is based on Bearden's updated version of the parable. Answers to the questions will relate to what they SEE in Bearden's collage. When appropriate, compare these answers to those in the first part.

Before You Begin

Ask the students to look at the work of art closely and make a list of everything they see. Have them share their observations with the class. Suggestion: a spelling list could be made up using objects or characters in the collage.


  • Through observation and discussion, students will compare two versions of the same story, one in the form of a biblical story and one in the form of a collage by twentieth-century African-American artist Romare Bearden. Students will learn traditional versions of the story and compare them to contemporary society (see Suggested Additional Activities #1 and #3).
  • Students will create collaged works about their families to share with the class and their families (see Suggested Additional Activity #2).
  • Students will use collage to create a work of art depicting a scene in a story of their choice (see Suggested Additional Activity #4). 



Before beginning, familiarize yourself with Romare Bearden's Return of the Prodigal Son.

There are three figures in an indoor setting. Try to find body parts on each one—eyes, nose, mouth, ears. Look also for details of the clothing each wears.

On the left, the returning son is in a frontal position. His arm is around the neck of the center figure—you can see his hand coming from behind her. On the floor to the left of the son is, perhaps, a bottle of wine, wrapped in rope. His shoes are green.

In the center, you can find the profile of a woman, probably seated, wearing a bun and a necklace. Her clothed breasts are visible, and her hand visible in front of her is cupped. Her shoes are reddish brown.

On the right is the profile of a figure wearing some sort of hat, a long dress-like garment and very red lips, which may be lipstick, although this person shares characteristics that could be either male or female. He or she wears brown boots and holds some food that is hard to identify in one hand. The other hand hangs down by his/her side, on the side facing us.

There is a table between the center figure and the figure on the right. The table also is behind the figure on the right and can be seen to his or her right. On it are:

  • A candle in a jeweled candle holder, with glass over it
  • A knife and fork
  • A salt or pepper shaker

On the wall behind the figures is a still life picture of bottles and jars—it could also represent shelves of food.

To the far upper left is either a view out of the window or a work of art hanging on a wall of a desert scene.



Once, many years ago, somewhere in the Middle East, lived a wealthy man with two sons. Each of them was given a share of their father's money and possessions. The oldest son stayed home and worked hard, helping his father with their animals and crops. The younger son left home and traveled all over, spending his money unwisely. After a number of years, he found himself penniless and homeless. He returned home to his father, apologizing for his careless behavior. Rather than punishing the irresponsible youth, his father hugged him, gave him new clothing, and had a great feast prepared to welcome his son home. The older son thought that this was unfair, and was angry. Although his father understood his anger, he explained, "Your brother was dead and has come back to life, was lost and is found."


Who are the characters in the story?
Father, older son, younger son

What is their lifestyle?
They are wealthy (with livestock and crops) and most likely live in or near the desert (show the students the Middle East on a map).

What types of things would they wear in this climate? What might their house be like? Do they do all of their own work?

What are the rules governing their lives?
Take care of family; forgive mistakes

Where are they located?
Desert, Middle East

What important events might have happened in their past?
This is a question for your students' imaginations (e.g., probably their mother died; they've learned about farming and livestock; were the two boys close, or did they fight all the time? etc.)



"The Prodigal Son has left North Carolina, gotten into bad company and has come back to the 'old folks,' his home, where, as Robert Frost says, when no one else wants you, they got to take you in."


The class should base their answers on the work of art. Remember to validate all answers, because everyone sees art differently, based on their own experiences and ideas.

PLEASE NOTE that the collage contains references to both the traditional and modern versions of the story. For example, although Bearden was referring to North Carolina, there is a small fragment of desert in the upper left corner. The candle, too, might refer to the past, along with the bottle of wine wrapped in rope. Keep this in mind when the children are making observations.

Who are the characters in the story?
Young man and two adults (since the two adults seem to both be women, you could discuss the way families have changed over the centuries, especially in contemporary society)

What is their lifestyle?
Have the students look at their clothing, jewelry, and the surrounding objects

What are the rules governing their lives?
Since this takes place in contemporary society, perhaps students could base their answers on their own families and their rules; do they think that the two adults will have some new rules for the youth that has just returned?

Where are they located?
North Carolina (where Bearden lived until he was about ten years old)

What important events might have happened in their past?
This is still a question for the students' imaginations (How are the three characters related? What do they do for a living? What did the young man do that got him into trouble? Why did he leave and where did he go?)

Suggested ADDITIONAL Activities

  1. Read the story of the Prodigal Son (from Luke, 15: 11–32), one of the most frequently represented parables in the history of art. “A man divided his estate between his two sons. The younger went off, squandered his portion in a riotous living and was finally, in poverty, reduced to tending a farmer’s pigs. He returned home penitently and was joyfully received by his father, who dressed him in fine clothes and killed a fatted calf to make a feast. The father mollified the angry elder son (who had remained home, helping with his father’s estate and made wise use of his share of the money), saying, ‘Your brother here was dead and has come back to life, was lost and is found.’” (From James Hall, Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art, 1974). Look carefully at Bearden's collage, and find details that relate to the original story. Then discuss it in terms of contemporary society.
  2. Collect family photos that are extra or unwanted. Make a collage of your family. Make sure that you include a setting (this can be drawn, collaged with additional images).
  3. There are several important messages in the story of the Prodigal Son. Discuss ideas of forgiveness, and turning over a new leaf with the support of family and friends. Design a plan for resolving disputes in creative, positive ways.
  4. Romare Bearden’s Return of the Prodigal Son is from a series called “The Prevalence of Ritual,” created by Bearden in the 1960s and 1970s. Choose a story you are reading. Decide which scenes are the most helpful in illustrating the narrative. Using any medium (collage, drawing, painting, etc.), illustrate these scenes, give them titles (including a series name), and display them together. You could also make them into a book, with written pages retelling the story in between the illustrations.