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1903 The Prodigal Daughter and the Problem Picture

In the early twentieth-century, the “problem picture” became a popular craze at the Royal Academy exhibitions. Deliberately ambiguous—and often slightly risqué—scenes of contemporary life, these pictures encouraged eager audiences to offer competing interpretations of the puzzles they posed, both at the Academy itself and in newspaper coverage and competitions.1 John Collier’s painting The Prodigal Daughter, exhibited at the Academy in 1903, was one of the first and most popular problem pictures, sparking conversations about new roles for women and the purpose of art in the early twentieth century (Fig. 1).

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A young woman stands proudly—even haughtily—at the doorway of a humble parlour, decorated with old-fashioned prints and a modest round table. The daughter has interrupted her ageing parents at their evening reading, as the father looks up from his book and the mother slightly rises from her chair. The prodigal’s fine flowered dress and red sash are in sharp contrast to her parents’ drab clothing, a difference emphasised by the dramatic lighting which illuminates her unbound hair and gold jewellery, and plunges the older couple into shadow.

Visually and thematically, the picture is a witty and thoughtful reworking of Hunt’s “modern moral subject”, The Awakening Conscience, exhibited at the Academy in 1854. Hunt’s picture shows the spiritual reawakening of a “fallen woman”, who rises from her lover’s lap as she realises the error of her ways. Collier subtly reworks the furnishings of Hunt’s domestic interior: the piano, the prints, the mirror, even the tangled skeins of yarn all reappear, but are now dingy and old-fashioned. The elderly parents even seem to reprise Hunt’s young couple: in each pair, the man sits in a chair, turned to the right, arm resting on the armrest, while the woman reacts more quickly than her partner, caught in the act of rising to a stand. But if Hunt’s protagonist’s spiritual awakening offered a clear moral message about sin and repentance, Collier’s picture is less comprehensible, not least because this prodigal looks most decidedly unrepentant.

Reviewers struggled to devise a narrative that would make sense of both the picture and its seemingly religious title. In the words of one puzzled critic:

From the title of the picture, it may be inferred that her career has been similar to that of the Prodigal Son of the parable, but she has none of his repentant humility, and has seemingly not been reduced to the straits which he had to face.2

Viewers imagined various stories to make sense of the situation, and as one reporter noted, “there is always a group gathered, discussing the artist’s meaning and debating as to whether the bedizened young lady is supposed to have just returned home or to be on the eve of departure.”3

As they worked to make narrative sense of the picture, critics grappled with the changing roles for and expectations of women in the early twentieth century. For some viewers, the very idea of a prodigal daughter still carried the sexual connotation and inevitable consequences inherent in the Victorian idea of the “fallen woman”. M.H. Spielmann described her in damning terms as a modern type:

the Prodigal Daughter of to-day, whose feminine heart, once abandoned and wholly corrupt, knows no redemption, but glories in sin, and is conscious only of enjoyment as to the past, and as to the future persistence in the lost path on which she has entered.4

But others questioned both the reason for the daughter’s decision to leave home, and her emotional relationship to her parents. Many critics suggested she might have left home to pursue a career on the stage, and The Daily Telegraph added the possibilities that she was a singer or a painter.5 The woman’s magazine The Gentlewoman even interpreted the picture as a young woman’s justified rebellion against a reactionary and unpleasant home life, describing the father as “a bourgeois Casaubon” and concluding that the beauty of the girl’s face “is so tempered by refinement as to suggest that her time has been spent in running a tilt against convention rather than swine-herding.”6

While Collier himself never embraced the label of the “problem picture”, throughout his career he defended his paintings as explorations of real emotion and character designed to make viewers engage with the depicted situations.7 In a retrospective interview, he looked back to “the first of these pictures of mine that was dubbed ‘problem’”, and described his own perspective on the development of The Prodigal Daughter:

There I undoubtedly tried to tell a dramatic story and, I think, a human one. There are the eminently respectable lower-class parents, and there bursts in upon them a flaunting beauty who, unlike the prodigal son, is obviously unrepentant. The girl is unquestionably saying, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” The father, perhaps a local preacher, is stern and unyielding; the mother is bending forward, yearning for her child. There were, for me, many problems in that picture. How to get suitable models for the three actors in this little drama; how to make the room and its furniture expressive of the home life from which the girl had broken away; how these people would have looked and acted, and, a more purely pictorial point, what would have been the effect of the one lamp which is the sole illumination of the three figures.8

Collier emphasises the narrative and emotional power of the painting, but some of his language also points to the changing artistic values of the early twentieth century, as questions of colour, light, form, and facture came to seem more important to at least some viewers than story or moral.

  1. Pamela M. Fletcher, Narrating Modernity: The British “Problem Picture” 1895–1914 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003).↩︎

  2. “The Royal Academy”, The Morning Post, 11 May 1903, 8.↩︎

  3. “Art and Artists”, The Morning Post, 11 May 1903, 9.↩︎

  4. M.H. Spielmann, “Notes”, Royal Academy Pictures 1903 (London: Cassell and Company, 1903), iii.↩︎

  5. “The Royal Academy”, The Daily Telegraph, 8 May 1903, 7.↩︎

  6. “Iris”, “Art and Artists”, The Gentlewoman, 9 May 1903, 637.↩︎

  7. The term seems to have been widely taken up in the popular press in the years around 1908; Collier himself used it in an interview in 1905. J.P.C., “The Picture of the Year”, The Pall Mall Magazine, December 1905, 785. On the history and implications of the term, see Fletcher, Narrating Modernity, 5–30.↩︎

  8. John Collier, “A Page from My Life”, The Graphic, 26 March 1927, 506.↩︎

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Explore the 1903 catalogue