Bodenburg Collection, Halle;
Prof. Dr. W. Freiherr von Bissing, Munich, by 1910;
Munich art market;
Von Schönaich-Carolath, Germany;
Anonymous sale, London, Sotheby's, April 9, 1986, lot 69, reproduced;
With Heim Gallery, London;
From whom purchased by the present owner.
The Old Man Beguiled by Courtesans is datable to 1537 or shortly after, on the basis of the composition and the signature. It is signed in the upper right with the device of a serpent with folded wings, a revision of Cranach's early mark, which depicted a serpent with the spread wings of a bat. While the new device appears on a few earlier pictures,2 it is first in common usage in 1537, the year that Cranach's elder son Hans died and Lucas Cranach the Younger became the co-director and manager of his father's workshop. The device was not a signature as such, but a mark of quality, and was used as such by both Cranach and his son. This sharing of the serpent mark plus the extremely high quality of the younger Cranach's works at this period have made it very difficult for scholars to come to a clear consensus in distinguishing between the oeuvres of father and son. Friedländer and Rosenberg published the painting as by Cranach the Elder,3 but more recently Koepplin tentatively suggested it might be a collaboration between father and son.4 Ludwig Meyer, on the basis of a photograph, believes the painting to be solely the work of Cranach the Elder.5
The painting shows an old man with a long grey beard, seated at a card table surrounded by attractive young women, three of whom can be identified as courtesans by their elaborate clothing and coiffures. The old man is wearing luxurious velvet robes and a double strand of gold chain around his neck and clearly has the means to pay for his entertainment. Behind him stands a laughing young woman who covers his eyes with her hands, and he is so charmed by her attentions that he is unaware that she and her companions are robbing him. One woman, immediately to the right, scoops up the man's gold coins - his stake for the card game - helped by her maid who has transferred the coins to her apron. In the right rear is a well-dressed couple, the young man whispering in the ear of his companion and pointing to the victim of the courtesans' deception.
The subject can be associated with two groups of paintings within Cranach's oeuvre: the Power of Woman or Weibermacht and the theme of the Ill-Matched Pair. The first inludes such subjects as Aristotle and Phyllis, David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, and Hercules and Omphale, in which women excercise domination over men and humiliate them. Such subjects were represented either as independent images or together in sculptural groups, stained glass and other decorative arts from the middle ages onwards and were adapted by printmakers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Cranach himself was very taken with this theme and painted a variety of compositions, including a painting of Aristotle and Phyllis, dated 1530 which was sold in these rooms on January 24, 2008, lot 78. The closest in its horizontal format and crowding together of four young women around the man may be Hercules and Omphale in Braunschweig (F.-R. 274),6 dated 1537. However, this comparable work and the other above mentioned subjects are all either Biblical or classical themes, while The Old Man Beguiled by Courtesans is a purely contemporary scene with moralizing overtones. As such it should be considered in the context of a group of paintings of Ill-Matched Pairs, such as theYoung Girl and Old Man in the Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf (F.-R. 287), with its emphasis on inappropriate sexual relations and deception. The explicit depiction of courtesans is a rare subject and only one other painting attributed to Cranach is recorded, Old Man with Young Courtesans (F.-R 291), formerly in the collection of Sir Arthur de Cros.
Cranach's interest in these purely genre subjects may derive from his knowledge of early northern printmaking. Ill-Matched Pairs can be found in the prints of the fifteenth century Master of the Housebook and in various examples by his followers. However, more expansive scenes comparable to The Old Man Beguiled by Courtesans are quite rare. One of the few examples is Lucas van Leyden's large woodcut A Tavern Scene of 1520, which treats the subject of carnal love and deception, though without the additional element of the unequal lovers. It is Cranach's genius, however, that enabled him to translate this subject into a fully developed painting - a refined panel, suitable for the tastes of the court at Wittenberg.
We are very grateful to Dr. Dieter Koepplin for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.
1. Friedländer and Rosenberg in this and the later, English edition, erroneously give the dimensions of the picture as circa 95 by 140 cm.
2. See C. Talbot, "Cranach," in The Dictionary of Art, London 1996, vol. 8, p. 112.
3. Although first published by Nasse as the work of Cranach and studio, Friedländer and Rosenberg included Old Man Beguiled by Courtesans in both editions of their catalogue raisonné, see Literature above, Nasse, Ibid., M.J. Friedländer and J. Rosenberg, 1932, no. 322, and 1978, no. 401.
4. D. Koepplin confirmed the attribution to Cranach the Elder from a photograph but brought up the possibility of Cranach the Younger having contributed to the work in an annotation: "and the Younger?", undated written communication of October 2008.
5. L. Meyer, undated written communication, November 2008.
6. M.J. Friedländer and J. Rosenberg 1978.
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