Cranach’s chief accomplishments were in portraiture and paintings of religious and mythological subjects, as well as prints and drawings. Best known as court painter to the Electors of Saxony and the foremost artist of the Reformation, he also worked for the local merchant class and Catholic patrons such as the members of the Albertine line of Saxon princes and Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, one of Luther’s archenemies. Assisted by sons Hans and Lucas, Cranach directed a flourishing workshop which was responsible for executing many of his public commissions and an increasing number of private commissions after the 1520s, typically painting numerous variations of successful compositions whose syncopated Gothic linear rhythms and brilliant color give them a decorative appeal which is popular to this day. Remarkably, the quality of Cranach’s workshop production remained consistently high, especially the works signed by his son Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515–86). Paintings featuring courtly ladies, blithe nudes or femme fatales — Venus, Judith, Lucretia, Salome were particularly in vogue. His jewel-toned palette, compressed sense of space and strong graphic line have an undeniable appeal to the modern eye and influence artists such as Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Otto Dix (1891–1969) and John Currin (b. 1962) as well as collectors of contemporary art.
Cranach was born in Kronach where he trained with his father, Hans Maler (1480/88–1526/29), a successful painter in North Franconia. Cranach’s earliest extant independent paintings date from his sojourn in Vienna circa 1501–04 and were seminal for the development of the Danube School. Characteristic of his early style are the exuberant palette and vigorous brushwork, evident in a small Crucifixion (before 1502, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) and portraits of Dr Johannes and Anna Cuspinian (1502–3; Sammlung Oskar Reinhart, Winterthur), as well as their brilliantly observed landscape background — a leitmotif to be found across all genres in Cranach’s oeuvre.
In 1505 Cranach was summoned by Frederich the Wise to Wittenberg where he soon developed a distinctive style that defined the taste of the Saxony rulers for the remaining century. In The Martyrdom of St Catherine (1506, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden), his first major work since moving to Wittenberg, the exquisite portrait heads maintain the unbridled expressionism of his earlier style, however, a new disposition towards decorative forms and patterns is manifested in the psychedelic dress and restrained decorum. Cranach’s visit to the Low Countries in 1508 introduced a new softness in the modeling as one sees in panels such as Venus and Cupid (Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg), the prototype of all Cranach’s nudes. He spent the following years in Wittenberg, producing murals and decorations for various ducal residences, as well as court portraits among which the bust-length Triptych with the Three Electors (Kunsthalle, Hamburg) and full-length Henry the Pious, Duke of Saxony and Catherine of Mecklenburg, Duchess of Saxony (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) for the Elector are most celebrated. A monochrome background, as in these two examples, accentuates the sitters commanding presence as does the frosty idealization of their features. On occasion, he injects real human sympathy and close observation into his portraiture, visible especially in his rare portraits of children (Portrait of Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous, National Gallery, London). Religious or mythological scenes more often were given a distinctive German identity by means of the folklorish landscape in the background. Cranach conjured up combinations of fantastical Jurassic limestone cliffs, foreboding firs, mirage-like hill-top castles all against brilliant azure skies which invariably set the stage for some of his most iconic religious and mythological compositions: Stag Hunt of the Elector Frederic the Wise (1529; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), The Golden Age (1530; Alte Pinakothek, Munich), and A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (1526; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), and The Virgin Suckling the Child (ca. 1515; Szépmuvészeti Múzeum, Budapest).
In Wittenburg, Cranach was elected Burgomaster at least three times and became a close friend and ally of Martin Luther, whose portrait he painted repeatedly after the early 1520s and disseminated through prints, became synonymous with Cranach’s brand. Cranach’s paintings produced in this late period tend to have a crystalline coolness, a lacquered surface, clean contours and harsh contrasts. The strong graphic quality indicates the involvement of his family workshop, meanwhile, the patriarch devoted himself more intensively to illustration of books on Protestant theology. After 1520 Cranach inaugurated a long series of nudes and strong women blurring the lines between the sacred and profane. Painted against either a black background or a Danubian landscape Cranach’s female nudes display a feigned naivety and a disconcerting earthly presence which reflects the complex sentiment towards women as sensual, mischievous, threatening, victims and destroyers of men. In 1547, Cranach followed the Elector John Frederick into captivity moving to Augsburg and Innsbruck, and in 1552 joining him in Weimar where he died a year later.
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Books on Cranach
Renaissance and Reformation: German Art in the Age of Dürer and Cranach, exh. cat., Munich, 2016.
Gunnar Heydenreich, Lucas Cranach the Elder: Painting Materials, Techniques and Workshop Practice, Amsterdam, 2007.
Werner Schade, Lucas Cranach: Glaube, Mythologie und Moderne, exh. cat., Ostfildern-Ruit, 2003.
Max J. Friedländer and Jakob Rosenberg, The Paintings of Lucas Cranach, rev. ed., trans. Heinz Norden, Ithaca, 1978.
Karel van Mander, The Lives of the Illustrious Netherlandish and German Painters, 1603/4, trans. Hessel Miedema, Doornspijk, 1994.