Johann Liss

(Oldenburg c. 1597 - 1631 Venice)

The Prodigal Son

Oil on canvas, 29¾ x 26⅝ins. (50.1 x 67.6 cm)


With Old Masters Galleries Ltd (Wengraf), London, 1953
With Julius Böhler, Munich
Heinz Kisters, Kreuzlingen, 1965
With Brod Gallery, London, 1969
Private collection, England
Anonymous sale, Sotheby’s, London, 12 December 1979, lot 64
Saul P. Steinberg (1939-2012), New York, and by descent
Private collection, New York, until 2023.


Weltkunst, 15 October 1953, p. 3.
E. Schilling, “Betrachtungen zu Zeichnungen von Johan Liss”, in Festschrift für Karl Lohmeyer, Saarbrücken, 1954, p. 37, no. 2.
K. Steinhart, “Das Werk des Johann Liss in alter und neuer Sicht”, Saagi e memorie di storia dell’arte II, 1958/59, p. 181.
C. Donzelli, G. M. Pilo, I Pittori del Seicento Veneto, Florence, 1967, p. 242.
E. A. Safarik, “La Mostra de Johann Liss”, Arte Veneta 29, 1975, p. 303.
R. Spear, “Johann Liss Reconsidered”, The Art Bulletin 58, no. 4, December 1976, pp. 584, 586 & 588.
R. Klessmann, “Addenda to Johann Liss”, The Burlington Magazine, 128, no. 995 (February, 1986), p. 192, no. 9.
R. Klessman, “Gartenfeste und Gelag.  Ein bevorzugtes Bildthema von Johann Liss”, Kunst und Antiquitaten, 1992 (9), p. 29f.
J. Wojciechowski, “A Preparatory Drawing for Liss’s ‘Temptation of St. Anthony’”, The Burlington Magazine, 138, no. 1116, March 1996, p. 191.
R. Klessmann, Johann Liss: A Monograph and Catalogue Raisonné, Doornspijk, 1999, no. 10, p. 138, p. 71 (colour illustration, pl. 23).


Arcade Gallery, London, exhibition catalogue, 1954, no. 16
Bregenz, Meisterwerke der Malerei aus Privatsammlungen im Bodenseegebiet, 1965, no. 58
Augsburg, Rathaus, Johann Liss, 1975/76, no. A-33; and Cleveland, Cleveland Museum of Art (cat. entry by A. Tzeutschler Lurie).


Very little documentation exists concerning the short, peripatetic life and artistic career of Johann Liss, one of the few painters active in seventeenth-century Venice to achieve European significance.  He was born in northern Germany, in the Oldenburg region north of Lübeck, and between 1615 and 1619 spent some time in Amsterdam and Haarlem.  Although no paintings from his early Netherlandish period survive, extant drawings datable to around this time reveal the influence of Haarlem Mannerism, Willem Buytewech, Dirck Hals, and Goltzius, of whom Liss – according to his friend and biographer Joachim von Sandrart – was a follower. Around 1620, Liss travelled south to Venice via Antwerp, where the examples of Rubens, Abraham Janssens and Jacob Jordaens were to make a lasting impression on him.  In Venice, according to Sandrart, Liss “loved Titian, Tintoretto, Paolo Veonese, Fetti and the manner of other Venetians”[i], an assertion borne out by the luminosity of palette, fluidity of brushwork, and compositional dynamism which would characterise his mature style.  Around 1622, Liss moved to Rome, where he joined the society of northern artists known as the Schildersbent, in which his given nickname was Pan.  During his three-year Roman sojourn, Liss absorbed the lessons of Elsheimer and his circle, the Bolognese artists from the Carracci shop, and the followers of Caravaggio, especially Manfredi and Regnier.  Around 1625, Liss left Rome for Venice, where he painted two of his most celebrated pictures: The Dream of St. Paul (circa 1627, Berlin, Gemäldegalerie), made as a companion to Fetti’s St. Peter (untraced); and the large altarpiece depicting The Inspiration of St. Jerome (circa 1628; Venice, S. Nicolò da Tolentino), which was much copied in the eighteenth century.  Liss died an early death, perhaps from the plague, in 1631, but his complex Baroque style – a unique and often brilliant combination of northern, Venetian and Roman elements – would exert considerable influence on later generations of Venetian painters, including Loth, Strozzi, Ricci and Piazzetta. 

The present painting depicts an elegantly dressed, amorous couple surrounded by a company of merrymakers, who amuse themselves in a garden bower in front of an inn with music, wine, and lascivious behaviour.  The merry company in an outdoor setting was a popular subject in Netherlandish art of the seventeenth century, and Liss had undoubtedly been introduced to this genre early in his career by the Haarlem painters Willem Buytewech, Esaias van de Velde, and Dirck Hals.  Klessmann has pointed out that the people grouped around the table exhibit behaviour alluding to the various senses, the auditus suggested by the lute-player, visus by the lovers gazing into each other’s eyes, odoratus by the ablutions of the dog, and tactus by the erotic contact of the couple on the left.

As first suggested by Ann Tzeutschler Lurie[ii], our picture most likely represents the Prodigal Son carousing among the harlots as recounted in Luke: 15.  In seventeenth-century Dutch depictions of this subject, The Five Senses were often included as moralising references to the “causes of sinful behaviour” and Liss incorporated them into a slightly earlier version of The Prodigal Son, now preserved in the Gemäldegalerie, Vienna, as well.[iii] Klessmann has identified the cavalier standing in the centre foreground, who occupies himself with a courtesan wearing a bright red, low-cut dress, as the Prodigal Son.[iv] 

Klessmann, who assigns our painting to the beginning of Liss’s Roman period, circa 1622-23, has pointed out that the couple sitting to the left at the table recurs in Liss’s Merry Company, now lost, but known through a copy in the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco.[v]  Other details, such as the page serving wine at the right, or the guests gazing upward, reappear in Liss’s Prodigal Son in Vienna, while the setting in an arbour-like enclosure with a landscape opening on the right, and the theatrical gesture of the central courtesan have close parallels in The Temptation of St. Anthony in the Wallraff-Richartz Museum, Cologne.[vi]  The closest stylistic parallels to our painting are to be found, however, in The Decision of Hercules, also dated by Klessmann to Liss’s Roman years (Dresden, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen), in which the figure of Voluptas closely compares with that of the courtesan in red, and the treatment of the leafy, sunlight trees is quite similar.[vii]

[i] Joachim von Sandrart’s Academie der Bau-, Bild- und Mahlerey-Künst von 1675, ed. A. R. Peltzer, Munich, 1925, p. 187 (trans. Quote from R. Spear, op. cit., p. 582). 

[ii] A. Tzeutschler Lurie, in Johann Liss, exh. cat., Augsburg Rathus, 1975, p. 111. 

[iii] R. Klessman, op. cit., pp. 129-130. 

[iv] R. Klessman, op. cit., p. 138. 

[v] Illustrated in R. Klessmann, op. cit., p. 45, fig. 32. 

[vi] R. Klessmann, op. cit., p. 138.  See also A. Tzeutschler Lurie, op. cit., pp. 111-112. 

[vii] R. Klessmann, op. cit., p. 71.  Our picture has been variously dated in the past.  Tzeutschler Lurie assigned it to the second Venetian period (A. Tzeutschler Lurie, op. cit., p. 30), while Richard Spear felt that the painting originated at the end of Liss’s first stay in Venice (R. Spear, op. cit., p. 586).