Lucas Cranach the Elder
- Lucas, the elder Cranach
- Oil on linden panel
Anonymous Sale, New York, Sotheby's, 3 June 1988, lot 24;
Whence acquired by a private collector, by whom sold, ‘Property from a Private Collection’, New York, Sotheby's, 26 January 2012, lot 34, for $5,122,500;
Whence acquired by the present owner.
D. Koepplin and T. Falk, Lukas Cranach : Gemälde, Zeichnungen, Druckgraphik, vol. II, Basel and Stuttgart 1976, p. 662, under no. 576;
M.J. Friedländer and J. Rosenberg, The Paintings of Lucas Cranach, London 1978, p. 80, cat. no. 55, reproduced.
Prior to the painting's appearance at auction at Sotheby's in New York in 2012, it had remained largely unknown despite having been included in the art historical literature since 1932.1 In the revised edition of their catalogue, Friedländer and Rosenberg list it as an autograph painting by Cranach the Elder, dating it to circa 1512-14; however, they had apparently not seen the work in person.2 Similarly, Koepplin and Falk cited it in their seminal exhibition catalogue but also had not seen the picture itself.3 A cleaning and laboratory examination prior to the 2012 auction revealed not only the beauty of the work itself, but also its importance within Cranach's oeuvre, for the leading experts on Cranach Dr. Werner Schade and Dr. Dieter Koepplin now consider it to be the earliest version of Lucretia, a subject that clearly fascinated Cranach and which he came back to again and again throughout his long career.4
Forensic examination as well as stylistic analysis point to a date of circa 1509-10 for this picture. During Cranach's first years in Wittenberg, the court supplied him with linden for his panels, though he soon also began to use fir, beech and occasionally oak. Lucretia is painted on four strips of linden, which were smoothed down and joined together to create the support for the picture. This use of a number of narrow pieces of wood both reduced the possibility of warping and was also more economical. The panels run horizontally, that is across the short edge of the composition, not vertically. This was an unusual practice, notably used by the workshop that provided Cranach's panels until about 1510-11, thus providing a fairly reliable terminus ante quem for the painting. The wings of two early commissions, the altarpieces of The Martyrdom of St. Catherine in Dresden and The Holy Kinship in Frankfurt, of 1506 and 1509 respectively, show a similar arrangement of the narrow strips.4 An examination of the edges of the picture reveal that the framing elements were nailed to the panel before a double white ground was applied. The first ground, which was more liquid, flowed under the frame, while the second, thicker ground lodged up against it, leaving the characteristic barb at the edge of the painted area. The drips from the first ground can be clearly seen because there is an unusually large strip of unpainted wood visible beyond the barb all around the panel (see figs.1 and 2). There is no under-drawing visible to the naked eye or under infrared examination, which may be a result of Cranach using red chalk for the initial design (although he often used brush and black pigment for his under-drawings, it was not uncommon for Cranach to use red chalk as well). It is nonetheless clear that he revised the composition as he worked on it, as can be seen in the changes to the length and positioning of Lucretia's left thumb; it was originally smaller and was possibly hidden under the fur at the edge of her mantle.
The subject of the painting is the suicide of Lucretia, taken from Livy's Ab Urbe Condita. Lucretia was raped by Sextus Tarquinius, son of the last Roman king Tarquinius Superbus, and a relative of her husband. Although her father and husband swore to avenge her, in order to fully expunge the dishonour done to her, she committed suicide by stabbing herself. According to legend, the horror of the act, and her extreme sense of honour, spurred the aristocracy to rise up against the monarchy and establish the Roman Republic. Livy, in any case, regarded her as an exemplar of the virtuous Roman wife, and in the Wittenberg court, with its emphasis on learning and intellect, her conduct was celebrated as one of the antique virtues. The Suicide of Lucretia was a subject that preoccupied Cranach throughout his long career and there are more than 35 versions of the theme attributed to him and his circle. In all the paintings, Lucretia is shown alone, in full-length, half-length or three quarter length, sometimes partly clothed and sometimes nude except for a transparent veil that hides nothing. For Cranach the real subject is not the rape but the aftermath. Like Judith, the Old Testament heroine whom he also depicted numerous times, Lucretia is an embodiment of virtue rather than merely an historical figure.
Cranach paints Lucretia seated, in three quarter length, facing the viewer. She is covered in furs and jewels, but has pulled aside her mantel and blouse to expose her right breast, resting the point of her dagger just below it. In its composition Lucretia is very similar to another version of the subject of roughly the same size in a private collection.6 It is datable to circa 1510-1513 and was previously thought to be the earliest version of the subject. The major differences between the two are that in the latter version her hair is bound up rather than loose, and both breasts are exposed. In both, Cranach revels in the delineation of Lucretia's clothing. Here he is particularly fascinated by the play of light on the rich fur of her mantel, describing how the individual hairs separate and bend one way and another as the mantel follows the curves of her body. He takes similar care with Lucretia's hair, using an extremely fine brush to paint exuberant blond curls that escape from the thicker strands of hair, falling across her cheek and billowing out to form a cloud above her fur collar.
Later in his career he was much more mechanical in his treatment of the hair and drapery, so in looking at the present work in the context of Cranach's oeuvre we are better served comparing it to such early paintings as Venus in St. Petersburg or The Virgin and Child in the Thyssen Collection, rather than to later versions of Lucretia. Although the subjects of the three paintings are quite different, the figures themselves are very similar. All are serious round-faced young women, Venus and Lucretia are a little plump, with a slight double-chin. Details such as the treatment of the hair are strikingly alike as is Cranach's use of an intense but rather dark palette. There is a freshness to these works that is lost when the artist is forced to turn to a more formulaic manner to satisfy the demands of his patrons.
It is part of Cranach's genius that he is able to make the suicide of Lucretia an act both virtuous and erotic, though altogether lacking in horror. In other versions of the subject Cranach traces a discrete line of blood running across Lucretia's skin, but here the dagger just pricks her skin so that the blood trickles down the blade and a droplet forms on the guard of the handle. This virtuosic description of the bright, thick fluid running down the shiny blade is unique in Cranach's work. Lucretia has a contemplative look as she gazes at us, the point of the dagger just breaking her skin. Yet this serious look is counter-balanced by the artist's deliberate focus on her plump breast, setting it off with furs, gold chains and the sumptuous decorative work on her blouse. While the figure of Lucretia herself is quite different from the attenuated and ever so worldly Lucretias of the 1530s and 1540s, it embodies that tension between virtue and eros that runs through Cranach's work from his arrival in Wittenberg until the end of his career and still fascinates us today.
We are grateful to Dr. Werner Schade and Dr. Dieter Koepplin for their help in preparing this entry and to George Bisacca for his analysis of the panel and ground.
1. See Literature, Friedländer/Rosenberg 1932, p. 39, under no. 48
2. See Literature, Friedländer/Rosenberg 1978, p. 80, where they describe it with "dimensions unknown."
3. See Literature.
4. W. Schade, in a letter of 17 November 2011, dates the panel to circa 1509 on the basis of high resolution digital images and transparencies. D. Koepplin suggests a date of circa 1510 on the basis of personal examination of the painting.
5. G. Heydenreich, Lucas Cranach the Elder. Painting materials, techniques and workshop practice, Amsterdam 2007, pp. 57-58. Friedländer/Rosenberg 1978, nos. 12-13 and 18, respectively.
6. Friedländer/Rosenberg 1978 no. 42.