The painting was first published by Friedländer and Rosenberg in 1932, who identified the picture as an early work by Lucas Cranach the Elder and proposed a dating of circa 1510-13. A terminus ante quem is provided by the existence of a copy after Cranach’s original by his pupil Hans Döring, which is signed with his monogram HD and dated 1514, and is today in the Wiesbaden Museum.1 Cranach is known to have begun to develop his workshop by 1507 and the existence of Döring's copy attests to the practice of pupils copying the master’s originals, although the presence of the signature may have been a requisite to avoid any possible confusion with Cranach’s own or ‘approved’ studio versions.
In 1976 the present work was published by Koepplin and Falk, who likewise dated it circa 1510-13, and at the time believed it to be the earliest known treatment of the subject of Lucretia by the Elder Cranach. They tentatively associated the work with a possible pendant depicting the Old Testament figure Salome, today hanging in the Museu de Arte Antigua in Lisbon, in which the figure is similarly depicted, half-length (holding the head of Saint John the Baptist on a platter), against a black background, also wearing a choker set with precious stones.
In early 2012 another early treatment of Lucretia by Cranach the Elder appeared at auction in these rooms (fig. 1). Its dating of around 1509/10 places it as the earliest of Cranach's treatments of the figure of Lucretia.2 Both that painting and the present Lucretia share a great deal in common in design and handling. Both paintings depict the female heroine three-quarter length, in a similar pose, wearing a fur mantel and holding the dagger to her breast; the physiognomy is far more Italianate and naturalistic than the standard idealised courtly types that would dominate Cranach’s later treatments of the subject, and the features of the distinctive plump, rounded faces are rendered with remarkable detail and precision that suggest the use of real life models and lend a far greater sense of realism to the scene. The artist has made however a number of revisions to the earlier design, which gives the present version a heightened sense of drama and greater sensuality. Most strikingly, Lucretia is depicted with both breasts and the lower part of her midriff exposed, whilst her hair has been tied up and arranged in an elegant plat on her head. The artist has replaced the richly adorned sleeves in the earlier version with a simple white shirt that focuses the viewer on the strong vertical of the exposed body and the drama that is about to unfold. Moreover, Lucretia’s right hand, holding the dagger, has been turned over and her arm bent to give greater vigour and emphasis to the imminent thrust of the sharp blade, thereby heightening further the overall sense of drama.
For Cranach, the figure of Lucretia appears to have represented an embodiment of virtue rather than merely an historical figure. The story is taken from Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita. Lucretia was raped by Sextus Tarquinius, son of the last Roman king Tarquinius Superbus. Although her father and husband swore to avenge her, in order to fully expunge her dishonour, 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. She was therefore considered as an exemplar of the virtuous Roman wife and at the court in Wittenberg, with its emphasis of intellect and learning, her conduct was celebrated as one of the antique virtues.
Cranach’s fascination with the story of Lucretia is attested by the considerable number of treatments of the subject that he painted throughout his long career, with some 35 versions attributed to him or his circle. The present work appears to have enjoyed particular success and is known through numerous copies and derivations. In addition to the 1514 copy by Hans Döring there are workshop versions in the Kunstmuseum, Basel and the Crocker Art Gallery, Sacramento. The present work however, along with the earlier known treatment, stand alone as works of singular beauty and refinement within the artist’s numerous essays on the subject, and through the use of life-like models possess a sense of realism that is entirely absent in Cranach’s later treatments from the 1530s and 40s. What is common to all of the great German Renaissance master’s representations of the theme however is that the veneer of decency afforded by the historical subject does little to disguise the deeply erotic overtones of the scenes and it perhaps seems shocking that such images were deemed acceptable at the height of the Reformation and in the Saxon Court where Luther and Cranach lived and enjoyed a close friendship.
1. See Heydenreich 2007, p. 283, reproduced figure 219.
2. The painting was sold New York, Sotheby’s, 26 January 2012, lot 34, for $5,122,500 hammer.
3. See Friedländer and Rosenberg 1932, p. 39, under cat. no. 48.
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