In 1504 Lucas Cranach the Elder was called to Wittenberg, the capital of Saxony, and appointed court painter by Frederick the Wise. He was soon engaged in providing panel paintings, murals and prints for the court and within a few years had established the necessary workshop to deal with all the commissions attendant upon his new position. He became known for the speed with which he himself worked and the efficiency with which he trained those around him to mimic his style. Until the late twentieth century art historians and critics took an expansive view of Cranach's personal activity during his Wittenberg years, accepting a large number of paintings as by his own hand, but as in the case of so many other artists, the pendulum has swung in the other direction and the modern tendency has been to reduce the number of works fully attributed to Cranach the Elder.
The situation becomes even more complex in regard to the paintings made after 1537, when his elder son Hans died and Cranach ceded the management of the workshop in part to his younger son Lucas. It is around the same time that he changed his painter's device, folding up the dragon's bat-like wings. Although there is a theory that the folded wings were related to Hans' death and the changes in the workshop structure, in fact at least four paintings with the new mark predate 1537.1 The new device was not a signature, of either Cranach the Elder or the Younger, but like the old device, a guarantee of quality that the painting was worthy of the Cranach "label," and it is found on the works of both artists. It is not the case that Cranach the Elder gave up painting after 1537, and, in fact documentary evidence indicates he continued to be very active until his death. In his 2007 book on Cranach's technique and workshop practices, Gunnar Heydenreich cites a letter from Cranach the Younger to Duke Johann Albrecht I, stating that his father was still very much involved in the creation of paintings, some thirteen years after Cranach the Younger had taken over part of the management of the workshop.
Given this complexity of relationship between father and son, it is not surprising that three distinguished scholars have somewhat divergent views on the attribution of Lucretia. Dieter Koepplin, who studied the work in person, believes it is probably the work of Lucas Cranach the Younger, but under the direct oversight of his father.2 Werner Schade feels it is definitely by Cranach the Younger.3 Ludwig Meyer sees the hands of both artists in the painting: he attributes the head, necklace and naked torso to Cranach the Elder, while giving the fur and cloak and the completion of the composition to Cranach the Younger.4 We believe that the overall quality of the picture and specific passages such as the beautifully painted face, taken in conjunction with the new research on the workshop practices, point to the present work being a collaborative effort of father and son.
The subject of Lucretia's suicide, which was also treated by Albrecht Dürer, Hans Baldung Grien and others, is one that preoccupied Cranach the Elder throughout most of his long career, but there are no extant replicas of the present composition. There are, however, more than thirty-five other compositions attributed to him and his circle, the earliest dating from his first years at the court of Frederick the Wise. Lucretia is shown in full-length, half-length or three-quarter-length, as here, partly clothed or completely nude apart from a transparent veil. The subject is taken from Livy in his Ab Urbe Condita, where he recounts the rape of Lucretia by Sextus Tarquinius, the king's son. Lucretia's father and husband swear to avenge her, but in order to fully expunge the dishonor done to her, she commits suicide by stabbing herself. Livy considered her the exemplar of the virtuous Roman wife, and in the learned environment of the court at Wittenberg her conduct was celebrated as one of the antique virtues.
In Cranach's conception of the story, it is never the rape itself that is shown, but Lucretia alone about to commit suicide. Given the subject matter, his paintings are remarkably lacking in violence: the most one ever sees is a discreet drop of blood trickling from the point of the knife. Like Judith, the Old Testament heroine, or Salome, the jealous daughter of Herod, both of whom the artist frequently depicted, Lucretia is an iconic figure in Cranach's repertoire, an embodiment of virtue rather than an historical figure.
However, there is another contradictory element also present in Lucretia, an erotic subtext that runs through Cranach's art, from around 1520 onwards. While on one hand she symbolizes wifely virtue, on the other she is a sixteenth century "Venus in furs." She has dressed for her suicide in a jeweled collar with a gold chain around her neck, and her fur-lined cloak is pulled open so it frames her naked bosom and stomach. Cranach uses the same type, with subtle variations, for nearly all his female subjects, be they Eve, Judith, Salome, Lucretia or Venus. She is a young, slim Saxon girl, cool but knowing as she subtly engages the viewer's eye. The most overtly sexual paintings are those of Venus and the Honey Thief, but the erotic theme is apparent in the others as well. The court at Wittenberg was an educated and sophisticated one, engaged in the religious debates of the day, familiar with the classics but not immune to the sensual pleasures of a narrow and wealthy society. Lucas Cranach the Elder and Younger understood the tastes of their patrons and served them well.
We are very grateful to Dr. Dieter Koepplin for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.
1. See C. Talbot, "Cranach," in The Dictionary of Art, London 1996, vol. 8, p. 112.
2. D. Koepplin, in conversation and written communication, October 2008.
3. W. Schade, in a letter of October 23, 2007, based on photographs of the work.
4. L. Meyer, in a letter of November 3, 2008, based on photographs of the work.
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