American Art and National Identity

The Prodigal Son

Fig 9. Thomas Hart Benton, 1889-1975
The Prodigal Son, 1936,
lithograph
Brauer Museum of Art

Alienation also looms in Thomas Hart Benton's retelling of the parable of a prodigal son, who has returned to the broken-down hovel of his childhood home (fig. 9). Victim of the dustbowl and the economic depression of the 1930s, Benton's prodigal may have left the failing homestead to find his fortune. He returns to his place of origin in search of something irreplaceable, but finds it destroyed. The wayward son is deprived of home, the place where the prodigal would secure the affirmation of his progress in the world, and is instead greeted by the sun-scorched skeleton of the fatted calf and the broken remains of his father's house.

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