Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The World of Lucas Cranach

Lucas Cranach, Justice
Private collection
The World of Lucas Cranach - An Artist in the Age of Dürer, Titian and Metsys
Palace of Fine Arts, Brussels
20th October 2010 - 23rd January 2011

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472 - 1553) was one of the greatest European painters of the 16th century. This exhibition - the first to be devoted to the artist in a Benelux country - places the work of this leading figure of the German Renaissance in the social, cultural, and artistic context of his time. A court painter, he also rubbed shoulders with great figures such as Martin Luther, while liberating nudity and the power of women in a sensual, anti-academic style. Some 150 paintings, drawings, and rarely seen engravings show the authenticity and originality of his sophisticated artistry, his work in the studio, and his close bonds with his German, Italian, and Dutch contemporaries, including Titian, Dürer and Metsys. A journey through a fascinating period in European history.

Lucas Cranach, Melancholy
Unterlindenmuseum, Colmar
Like Albrecht Altdorfer and Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach the Elder was a German painter of the Renaissance. Nevertheless, many art historians agree that the painting of Cranach should be considered a prolongation of the Gothic into the 1530's, the International Gothic style in painting being characterised by an emphasis on precision and detail, combined with a certain elegance of treatment and a dynamic dictated by linear rythm, all in a spiritual context. It is generally acknowledged that Cranach was influenced at the beginning of his career by Dürer. It is at this period, around 1501-1503, that he painted several crucifixions in which the dynamism in the composition is notable, and a predilection for individualised expression.

The first evidence of Cranach's skill as an artist comes in a picture dated 1504. Early in his career he was active in several branches of his profession: sometimes a decorative painter, more frequently producing portraits and altarpieces, woodcuts, engravings, and designing the coins for the electorate.

Early in the days of his official employment he startled his master's courtiers by the realism with which he painted still life, game and antlers on the walls of the country palaces at Coburg and Locha; his pictures of deer and wild boar were considered striking, and the duke fostered his passion for this form of art by taking him out to the hunting field, where he sketched "his grace" running the stag, or Duke John sticking a boar.

Lucas Cranach, Venus and Cupid with a Honeycomb
Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
Before 1508 he had painted several altar-pieces for the Castle Church at Wittenberg in competition with Albrecht Dürer, Hans Burgkmair and others; the duke and his brother John were portrayed in various attitudes and a number of his best woodcuts and copper-plates were published. In 1509 Cranach went to the Netherlands, and painted the Emperor Maximilian and the boy who afterwards became Emperor Charles V. Until 1508 Cranach signed his works with his initials. In that year the elector gave him the winged snake as a emblem, or Kleinod, which superseded the initials on his pictures after that date.

Somewhat later the duke conferred on him the monopoly of the sale of medicines at Wittenberg, and a printer's patent with exclusive privileges as to copyright in Bibles. Cranach's presses were used by Martin Luther. His apothecary shop was open for centuries, and was only lost by fire in 1871. Cranach, like his patron, was friendly with the Protestant Reformers at a very early stage; yet it is difficult to fix the time of his first meeting with Martin Luther. The oldest reference to Cranach in Luther's correspondence dates from 1520. In a letter written from Worms in 1521, Luther calls him his "gossip", warmly alluding to his "Gevatterin", the artist's wife. Cranach first made an engraving of Luther in 1520, when Luther was an Augustinian friar; five years later, Luther renounced his religious vows, and Cranach was present as a witness at the betrothal festival of Luther and Katharina von Bora. He was also godfather to their first child, Johannes "Hans" Luther, born 1526.

The death in 1525 of the Elector Frederick the Wise and Elector John's in 1532 brought no change in Cranach's position; he remained a favourite with John Frederick I, under whom he twice (1531 and 1540) filled the office of burgomaster of Wittenberg. In 1547, John Frederick was taken prisoner at the Battle of Mühlberg, and Wittenberg was besieged. As Cranach wrote from his house to the grand-master Albert of Brandenburg at Königsberg to tell him of John Frederick's capture, he showed his attachment by saying: "I cannot conceal from your Grace that we have been robbed of our dear prince, who from his youth upwards has been a true prince to us, but God will help him out of prison, for the Kaiser is bold enough to revive the Papacy, which God will certainly not allow." During the siege Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, remembered Cranach from his childhood and summoned him to his camp at Pistritz. Cranach came, and begged on his knees for kind treatment to Elector John Frederick. Three years afterward, when all the dignitaries of the Empire met at Augsburg to receive commands from the emperor, and Titian came at Charles's bidding to paint King Philip II of Spain, John Frederick asked Cranach to visit the city; and here for a few months he stayed in the household of the captive elector, whom he afterward accompanied home in 1552.

Lucas Cranach, Lucretia
Private Collection
He died at age 81 on October 16, 1553, at Weimar, where the house in which he lived still stands in the marketplace. Cranach had two sons, both artists: Hans Cranach, whose life is obscure and who died at Bologna in 1537; and Lucas Cranach the younger, born in 1515, who died in 1586. He also had three daughters. One of them is Barbara Cranach, who died in 1569, married to Christian Brück (Pontanus), ancestors of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

The World of Lucas Cranach - official exhibition page.
Cranach's Golden Age - review by Timothy Hyman in the TLS of the Cranach exhibition at the Royal Academy, London in 2008.

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