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From the archive: Why the art world is crazy about Cranach

New technology is shedding light on an Old Master as the prolific, multi-talented artist enjoys a renaissance

In 2015, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held the exhibition Renaissance and Reformation: German Art in the Age of Dürer and Cranach © Museum Associates/LACMA

Forget Caravaggio. The new “hot” Old Master is Lucas Cranach the Elder. He has long been ranked alongside Dürer, Grünewald and Holbein as one of the major figures of German renaissance art and, in the past decade, interest in Cranach has skyrocketed. His pictures attain increasingly high prices at auction and in the trade, and even museums that have good holdings of his paintings are eager to add more.

Since 2007, no fewer than six major exhibitions have been devoted to him, including his first retrospectives in London, Paris, Brussels and Rome, and he features prominently in Dürer, Cranach, Holbein: the Discovery of Man, a retrospective of German renaissance portraiture at the Kunsthalle der Hypo-Kulturstiftung, Munich (until 15 January 2012). 

The sensuously feline, almond-eyed Cranach nude has long been a muse for modern painters, from Picasso and Otto Dix to John Currin. More recently, his stark representations of Christ as the “Man of Sorrows” have inspired the Belgian sculptor Berlinde De Bruyckere in her powerful and disturbing renderings of wax limbs and torsos, which are featured in “dialogue” with Cranach paintings and Pier Paolo Pasolini film clips in The Mystery of the Body, her retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Bern (until 12 February 2012). One of Australia’s most prominent racehorses is named after Cranach, popular picture books of his paintings (and those of his son, Lucas the Younger) can be downloaded to one’s Kindle, and the major German cities in which he lived and worked—Kronach, Wittenberg, Gotha, Dessau, Coburg, Weimar and Eisenach—have banded together to stimulate tourism, marketing themselves as “the Cranach cities”. He is everywhere.

Cranach's Venus and Cupid (1531) at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts in Belgium elPadawan via Flickr

A prolific polymath

The son of a painter named Hans Maler, Cranach took his name from Kronach, where he was born in 1472. Little is known of his training or artistic development, but Cranach’s earliest known works, produced in Vienna from around 1500 to 1505, reveal a fully mature artist of astonishing originality. His compositions, featuring monumental, unidealised figures placed within untamed, wooded landscapes beneath threatening skies, possess an almost unkempt vitality and power. These first masterpieces—including his double portraits of the humanist Johannes Cuspinian and his wife (1502-03) and The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1504)—possess an almost swaggering confidence designed to dazzle.

After leaving Vienna in 1504, Cranach moved to Wittenberg upon his appointment as court painter to Friedrich the Wise, the elector of Saxony. A loyal, efficient courtier, he maintained his position for nearly 50 years, serving three successive Saxon electors and commandeering an increasingly large and busy workshop, which eventually included the painter’s two sons, Hans and Lucas the Younger.

For Cranach and co, no job was too large, no demand too mundane. Their commissions included multiple portraits of the elector and his family, private devotional panels and altarpieces, designs for costumes for the court and its horses, processional banners and household accoutrements. They decorated and furnished the interiors of the elector’s ducal residences and hunting lodges with frescoes, monumental paintings on canvas and painted furniture, and even created gingerbread moulds.

Panels by Lucas Cranach the Elder at the State Gallery in Schloss Johannisburg, Aschaffenburg, Germany Allie Caulfield via Flickr

Given these demands, it was inevitable—even necessary—that Cranach’s compositions became increasingly simplified and standardised for easier reproduction. Landscape backgrounds of portraits were supplanted by flat, solid colours, in green, black, blue or red. His figures, from Venuses to Madonnas, became smoother, sweeter, younger and blonder, and mythological nudes adhered to a strict formula regardless of subject: tree on left, nudes in front of dark green hedge, mountain topped by castle beyond, blue skies above.

Cranach possessed extraordinary business acumen, and his multiple careers are exceptional for any age. Well remunerated for his services to the court, the prosperous painter diversified through extensive property holdings in Wittenberg and elsewhere, and established and managed a printing press, a bookshop, a wine shop and an apothecary. Cranach was also an active participant in local politics, serving more than one term as a burgomaster. With the advent of the Reformation, Cranach achieved his greatest fame and influence, becoming a supporter and close friend of Martin Luther.

“Master Lucas is a crude painter. He could have been less hard on the female sex both because they are God’s creatures and because they are our mothers. He should at the same time have painted the Pope in a more worthy, I mean more devilish, guise.” Martin Luther

After the Saxon court established itself as a bastion of the new faith, Cranach aided the cause with a widely disseminated supply of  propagandistic, anti-papal woodcuts, paintings and tracts. Hundreds of “celebrity” portraits of Luther, his wife and other reformers were cranked out by the Cranach shop and distributed throughout Germany. Despite their friendship, Luther seems to have had rather a low opinion of Cranach’s art: “Master Lucas is a crude painter. He could have been less hard on the female sex both because they are God’s creatures and because they are our mothers. He should at the same time have painted the Pope in a more worthy, I mean more devilish, guise.” For his part, the businesslike Cranach had no compunction about fulfilling commissions for altarpieces and devotional pictures from Luther’s arch-enemy, Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, the archbishop-elector of Mainz.

Cranach’s life was as long as it was successful, and he remained productive until his death at the age of 81 in 1553. Unlike Dürer and Holbein, whose achievements assured them uninterrupted fame across Europe, Cranach’s posthumous reputation remained local. He was revered in Germany more for his loyal friendship with Luther and artistic support of the Protestant cause than his production of frisky Venuses and bejewelled Judiths. The 19th-century rediscovery of German medieval and renaissance painting brought the artist fresh popularity and acclaim. At the first Cranach retrospective in Dresden in 1899, scholars were jolted by the inclusion of several of his Viennese works, which anticipated the expressionism and exploration of untamed nature of Grünewald and the painters of the Danube school. Clearly a reassessment was in order.

A gallery in the The Ringling, the State Art Museum of Florida, Lucas Cranach the Elder's Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg as St. Jerome (around 1520) in the centre Dan Lundberg via Flickr

Cataloguing Cranach

The first systematic attempt to catalogue and illustrate Cranach’s painted output was published in 1932 by Max Friedländer and Jakob Rosenberg, best known for their writing on early Netherlandish paintings and Rembrandt respectively. Despite its limitations (around 1,000 pictures were catalogued, but only 452 were illustrated), the publication has remained the essential tome of Cranach scholarship.

A revised edition in English was issued in 1978. An unusual scholar who could devote considerable attention to artists he essentially disliked, Friedländer’s essay on Cranach is caustic and dismissive. Cranach’s early Vienna productions are the only works that elicit enthusiastic admiration. His later, mature paintings are likened to a “smooth, shiny chestnut burst from a prickly, green shell… had Cranach died in 1505, he would have lived in our memory as an artist charged with dynamite. But he did not die until 1553, and instead of watching his powers explode, we see them fizzle out.”

Most importantly, Friedländer brings up a point usually ignored by museums, collectors and the art trade: given Cranach’s multiple careers outside his enormous studio, it is impossible for him to have produced every painting attributed to him. “Of the large number of panels produced in the Cranach studio between 1525 and 1540, let us assume those that have been executed with a particular care and subtlety to be the work of Lucas the Elder’s own hand—if, in view of the circumstances, it is possible to talk of his ‘own hand’,” the historian says.

The Cranach Digital Archive was launched in 2011 to catalogue the artist's work

“Friedländer was representative of an earlier generation of art historians who treasured the ideal of the ‘artist as solitary genius’, and it is no surprise that he looked down on the immense productivity of Cranach and his workshop,” says Gunnar Heydenreich, the director of the Cranach Digital Archive and the author of Lucas Cranach the Elder: Painting Materials, Techniques and Workshop Practice (University of Chicago Press, 2007). “But today we can see Cranach as an innovator in his mass production of works of a high standard. Much like Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons, Cranach was an efficient manager as much as he was an artist.”

The post-war generation of Cranach scholars was not as harsh as Friedländer, taking a more nuanced and appreciative view of the mature Cranach in a European context as an important participant in the Reformation and a renaissance master who rendered classical, humanist subjects with considerable wit and sophistication. This “new” Cranach was revealed at the great Cranach retrospective organised by Tilman Falk, Werner Schade and Dieter Koepplin at the Kunstmuseum, Basel, in 1974, commemorating the 500th anniversary of the artist’s birth. Many of the paintings lent to the exhibition were fresh discoveries, chief among them a double portrait diptych, 1509, of Johann the Steadfast (brother of Friedrich the Wise) and his six-year-old son, Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous. Dozens more have surfaced since then.

A new catalogue raisonné is desperately needed, but it is no longer sufficient to publish yet another “laundry list”. Although the connoisseurship of the well-trained eye can never be superseded, modern technology—including pigment and ground analysis, the study of preparatory underdrawings via infrared reflectography and the very recent development of high-resolution digital photography—has become an invaluable aid for art historians, answering questions about pictures’ creation, date and authorship.

An infrared reflectography examination of Lucas Cranach the Elder's paintings of Prince Frederick the Wise at the Museum of the Palatinate, Heidelberg, in Germany in 2011 Peter Schmelzle via Wikicommons

Given the particular questions posed by the enormous output of Cranach and his shop, it is perhaps inevitable that the future of Cranach scholarship is not on paper, but in the form of the Cranach Digital Archive, an authoritative, centralised online resource. Taking as a model the open-source, web-based software created by the National Gallery for its Raphael Research Resource, the Cranach Digital Archive was founded in 2009 by Heydenreich, a professor at the University of Applied Sciences Cologne and the Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf. Its initial project, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a joint effort by a core group of scholars, including Schade and Koepplin, and nine partner institutions (Munich’s Alte Pinakothek and Doerner Institut, Los Angeles’s J. Paul Getty Museum, Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum, London’s National Gallery, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Basel’s Kunstmuseum, Berlin’s Staatliche Museen and the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden).

The museums contributed 20 representative paintings by Cranach and/or his workshop. Each was the subject of infrared and high-resolution digital photography, in addition to full catalogue entries, including provenance and bibliographical references. To create an extensive database of visual material, the partners collected images of around 350 Cranach paintings from other museums, private collections and churches. These were photographed by Heydenreich using infrared and high-resolution equipment, while the associate scholar Ingo Sander put together an infrared reflectogram archive, comprising images of around 80 paintings, mainly in digital form.

The partners now hope to find additional funding to complete the project, with the aim of creating a database enabling scholars to take a fresh approach to issues including technique, dating, attribution and workshop practice. Although the archive is still under construction, it already comprises the most extensive image bank of Cranach paintings ever assembled, and is scheduled to be made accessible online this month.

Lucas Cranach the Elder's La Bocca della Verità (1525-28), sold at Sotheby's in 2015, was one of the last great works of his left in private hands

Popular, but what is he worth?

Thanks to the almost legendary productivity of  Cranach and his workshop, his paintings are still relatively available, if not as affordable as they once were. All of a sudden, everybody wants one. In November 2010, the Louvre—which already owned five excellent Cranachs, notably a haunting portrait of a blonde girl once identified as Martin Luther’s daughter Magdalena—launched an unprecedented online campaign to raise the final €1m needed to secure a small, sexy panel of The Three Graces (1531) (the museum had already committed €3m to the acquisition). Donations ranging from €1 to €50,000 poured in, and within a month the Louvre was able to buy the picture. Other museums have recently acquired works by Cranach. In 2004, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth bought the artist’s The Judgment of Paris (around 1512-14), which previously fetched £1.2m at Sotheby’s London in 1996. In 2003, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles bought A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion, a panel painting from around 1526.

The auction record for a painting by Cranach is £4.8m, set at Christie’s London in 1990 by a work from Schloss Wildenstein in Switzerland, a portrait diptych of 1509 in its original frame. Depicting Johann the Steadfast and his young son, Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous, the picture has been known to scholars since the early 1970s and was last shown in the great Cranach exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel in 1974. The National Gallery in London bought it privately in 1991. Another valuable painting is Cranach’s portrait of Johann Friedrich’s wife, Princess Sybille of Cleves. A close version of a picture in the Schlossmuseum, Weimar, it sold at Christie’s New York in 2008 for $7.7m (estimate $4m to $6m). In the same year, Portrait of a Young Lady Holding Grapes and Apples, a plush, idealised portrait, brought $5.1m (estimate $1.5m to $2m) at Sotheby’s New York. More beautiful than any of these lovely ladies, including the Louvre’s Three Graces, is the previously unknown Head of Christ with Crown of Thorns (around 1509) which is close in style and quality to the works of Cranach’s Vienna period. It sold at Sotheby’s London in 2004 for £677,600 (est. £100,000-£150,000).