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Romare Bearden

American, 1911–1988

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

Return of the Prodigal Son, 1967

Mixed media and collage on canvas
50 1/4 x 60 inches (127.6 x 152.4 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Armand J. Castellani, 1981

Romare Bearden was born in North Carolina and moved with his family to New York in the mid-1920s, where they lived in Harlem. Return of the Prodigal Son is from a New Testament story of two brothers, each of whom receives a share of his father’s estate. One stays home and works hard; the other squanders his share in a hedonistic lifestyle and returns home penniless and penitent. Rather than chastising the irresponsible youth, the father embraces him and prepares a great feast. The other son was angry until his father explained: “Your brother was dead and has come back to life, was lost and is found.” Bearden updates the story: “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.” In either version, it is a story of repentance and forgiveness, and a lesson about the possibility of turning lives around and beginning anew.

The collage contains references to both the traditional and modern versions of the story. The returning son, on the left, is greeted by two women, reflecting perhaps a common type of contemporary nuclear family. The candle between the two women might refer to the proverbial candle in the window, left burning for returning friends and family members. On the right are utensils and a salt shaker, and on the left a bottle of wine, perhaps reflecting the feast that would be served to celebrate the youth’s homecoming.

Related Lesson Plan

Memory Collage (For Grades 3–8)

Related Activities

Activities for Families (PDF)