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ARTicle

The Birth of a Parable

French sculptor Auguste Rodin ranks among the world’s most recognized and beloved artists. His sculptures, infused with palpable physical tension and deep emotional power, captured the popular imagination when he first created them over a century ago, and they continue to captivate today.

This sculpture of a young man exemplifies Rodin’s ability both to express raw feeling—through pose, gesture, and musculature—and to continually reimagine his compositions to create new figures and stories. Based on the biblical parable of the errant son who returns home to seek forgiveness after squandering his inheritance, The Prodigal Son is composed of elements that Rodin first used for a different sculpture: a figure from his monumental Gates of Hell. The head and torso originally belonged to his depiction of one of the sons of Ugolino, the count who was driven mad by imprisonment and hunger and devoured his own children. Yet by giving this head and torso different limbs—notably the dramatically outstretched arms asymmetrically ending in one clenched fist and one reaching hand—Rodin radically changes the story, transforming the anguish of a child about to be consumed by his father into a tale of penitence and
redemption.

This rare and richly patinated cast is the size of his original clay model. Unlike other, enlarged versions, it retains the unbalanced pose and tension of Rodin’s initial conception. This pose, impossible to hold, creates ambiguity as to whether the figure is rising having been forgiven or sinking to his knees seeking forgiveness. The work, on special loan for the exhibition Rodin: Sculptor and Storyteller, joins several other iconic sculptures by Rodin that together offer an insightful view of the artist’s talent for shaping bodies that tell profoundly emotional tales.