J. Chenue, London (Witt Library mount);
A.G.H. Ward, London (Witt Library mount);
Paul Cassirer, Berlin (d. 1926);
Thence by inheritance to his daughter, Suse Paret, later Bernfeld, Menton, France;
With Paul Cassirer Gallery, Amsterdam, by whom bought from the above in September 1934;
Dr. Alfred Hausamann, Zurich, by whom bought from the above in April 1936, and thence by direct descent;
With Walter Feichenfeldt, Zurich, 2001, from whom acquired by the present owner.
Cranach's depictions of the female nude, with their sophisticated sensuality and smooth, sinuous contours, have long been among the most coveted and successful of his creations. This example, which dates to 1525, is the earliest of Cranach's intimate small scale panels of the subject of Venus and Cupid, and is very probably the earliest of his depictions of this popular theme to remain in private hands.
Venus, the goddess of Love, is here portrayed as a standing female nude, wearing only a jewelled necklace, her hair flowing untied and loose around her; in her hands she holds only a modest transparent veil, which serves almost to accentuate her nakedness. Close inspection, confirmed by recent examination under infra-red reflectography, reveals that Venus originally wore a large crimson hat, which has now been concealed by a drab greenish brown curtain, added probably in the 19th century. Beside Venus stands Cupid, bereft of his wings and holding a bow and arrow with which he gestures towards the goddess, the playfulness of his role seemingly emphasised by his diminutive stature. The pale nakedness of the two figures is emphasised by the rough pebbles upon which Venus stands, and the stark black background which further serves to emphasise their outlines. The direct gaze with which Venus catches the eye of the spectator lends the whole work a coquettish atmosphere, which is then enhanced again by the intimate cabinet-style dimensions of the panel itself.
Cranach's vision of an idealised female nude first found expression much earlier in a life-size painting of 1509, now in the Hermitage, St. Petersburg (213 by 102 cm., see Friedländer and Rosenberg, under Literature, 1979, p. 72, no. 22, reproduced), in which Venus also stands upon similar rocky ground before a black background. In this work Cranach was no doubt responding to Albrecht Dürer's celebrated woodcut of Adam and Eve of 1504, or his painting of Eve three years later, now in the Prado, Madrid. Cranach himself had made a woodcut of the same subject which is dated 1506 but probably was produced around 1509 (Hollstein 105; reproduced in D. Koepplin and T. Falk, Lukas Cranach, Gemälde, Zeichnungen, Druckgraphik, Basel and Stuttgart 1972, vol. I, p. 253, colour plate XV). It was not until 1520 or shortly thereafter that Cranach seems to have become particularly interested in the nude as a form of artistic expression, but thereafter he drew greedily upon all available sources, whether mythological, biblical or historical, for his renditions. These included The Judgement of Paris, The Golden Age, Lucretia, The Nymph of the Spring, The Choice of Hercules, and, of course, the various themes associated with Venus. Instead of following classical Renaissance types, Cranach rapidly evolved an altogether more personal idiom in his representations of the nude. From roughly the mid-1520s onwards, the earlier, fuller, Venus figure was replaced by a slimmer female type, with rather more adolescent contours, as here. The number of extant versions suggest that the contemporary appetite for these paintings of Venus, alone or accompanied by Cupid, often in the role of the Honey Thief, was strong indeed. Some twenty-two versions of the Venus with Cupid as the Honey Thief survive, for example, and Friedländer and Rosenberg list another eighteen variants on the theme of Venus from the period between 1525 and 1537. The scale and format of the various Venus panels varies, but most depictions show the Goddess, usually accompanied by Cupid, at full length with braided and bejewelled hair. Many wear jewelled necklaces and carry a thin translucent veil, as in the present work, and are set in a landscape or as here, against a plain black background.
The success of these paintings might suggest that the reasons for their popular appeal might have been somewhat at odds with the erudite and humanising tastes of Cranach's patrons, the Dukes of Saxony at the court at Wittemberg, the centre of the Protestant Reformation. However, despite the seemingly overt sensuality of Cranach's depictions of Venus, his nudes always retain a certain lack of physical presence which belies such a limited interpretation, and they frequently reveal a moral undertone more appropriate to contemporary taste. Though undeniably a beauty, and with her original red hat perhaps even closer to a courtesan type, in paintings such as this Venus is cast not as a seductress, but as a Tugenwächterin, or guardian of virtue, warning the eager spectator of the power and attendant perils of love. The large St. Petersburg Venus and Cupid is, for example, inscribed in Latin with the moralising admonition:
Pelle Cupidineos Toto Conamine Luxus
Ne tua posideat Pectora ceca Venus
("Avoid Cupid's lust with all your might
That your breast be not possessed by amoral Venus")
Similarly, in Cranach's other most frequent depiction of the goddess of Love, Venus is shown with Cupid, stung by a bee and in the act of stealing some honey. These pictures were often accompanied by a Latin quatrain taken from the nineteenth Idyll of Theocritus:
"As Cupid was stealing honey from the hive
A bee stung the thief on the finger;
And so do we seek transitory and dangerous pleasures
That are mixed with sadness and bring us pain."
See, for example, that of 1530, now in Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst, no. 145 (reproduced Friedländer and Rosenberg, op. cit., p. 118, no. 244).
This painting would appear to be Cranach's earliest surviving treatment of this theme on a small scale. The reading of the date of 1525 on the signature would accord well with other works from a similar date. In terms of subject and scale it may be closely compared with the small roundel of Venus and Cupid sold, London, Sotheby's, 24 March 1965, lot 100, which Koepplin and Falk (op. cit., vol. I, fig. 148) date to around 1525-27. In this Venus stands wearing a red hat and holding her veil, and Cupid stands upon a socle with his bow and arrow. Equally close stylistic comparisons are to be found with a similar small-scale panel of Venus, signed and dated 1532, now in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, where Cupid is absent but the goddess holds a similar veil (inv. no. 1125, 37 by 25 cm.; Friedländer and Rosenberg, op. cit., p. 118, no. 246, reproduced). Another, much larger but iconographically identical version, painted circa 1530, is also now in Berlin (167 by 62 cm.; ibid., p. 118, no. 241, reproduced). Another large-scale variant of Venus with Cupid as a honey thief, in which Venus is shown wearing a large scarlet hat, is in the Borghese Gallery, Rome (ibid., no. 245, reproduced), and may serve as some indication of the original appearance of the present work.
The attribution to Lucas Cranach the Elder has been confirmed by both Dr. Dieter Koepplin (private communication, dated 7 June 2001) and Professor Wernher Schade (private communication, dated 22 February 2005).
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