Cranach at the Royal Academy

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Cranach at the Royal Academy

Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review

THE Royal Academy's sumptuous exhibition, Cranach, has been an occasion for rejoicing. It is the largest display of the pictures of Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) ever seen in this country, with over ninety panel-paintings and 23 works on paper, mostly of impeccable provenance. This does not compare with the 650 works at the compreensive exhibition at Basel in 1974; so comprehensive that the complete catalogue did not emerge until a year later, and then in confusing form. Perhaps a hundred pictures are just right to be studied in two or three visits. The body of the catalogue is lucid and informative enough to merit a place along side Friedlander and Rosenberg's scholarly although summary catalogue of Cranach's pictures, published in 1932. It is only fair to add that the London exhibition and catalogue are derived from last winter's exhibition at the enterprising Stadel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, which also originated the 2006 Elsheimer exhibitions in Edinburgh and Dulwich (see Contemporary Review, Winter 2006). Particularly welcome were the early pictures by Cranach which were for many years inaccessible to Western students in the smaller galleries of East Germany and Bohemia. One wonders why, when pictures are sent from Brno, Eisenach and Gotha for our delectation, the National Gallery (a brief stroll from the Royal Academy) did not liberate Cranach's exquisite Caritas from its reserve collection. For all that, Cranach has at last been given the tribute he deserves in this country as the supreme painter (as Durer was the supreme draughtsman and engraver) of the German Renaissance.

As with Rembrandt, there have been misgivings over authenticity. For about fifty years of activity from 1500-1553 Cranach was boundlessly energetic. Always inventive, when a subject took his fancy he painted not merely one version of it but half a dozen, sometimes with marginal help from the numerous pupils he shared his inspiration with. Overwhelmed with requests for small portraits of Martin Luther at one time, he openly used Studio replicas which he merely supervised, providing perforated stencils. Impercipient collectors and gallery-curators could not distinguish the indubitable in his work, although there are external clues as well. His predecessor as court-painter to Frederick the Wise was Jacopo de' Barbari, who signed his work with the caduceus of Mercury, god of craftsmanship and art: a rod entwined by two winged serpents. Cranach modestly disentangled just one of the serpents from the rod. In his early signatures, which he allowed only his eldest son Hans to share, he gave the serpent bats' wings. Since Hans painted only one extant picture (Hercules and Omphale), the erect-winged serpent is usually a warrant of authenticity. Hans's death from the plague at the University of Bologna, where he was studying Law, in 1537, left Cranach desolate. Cranach's intimate friend Luther did his best to console him, but such was his grief that thereafter the serpent bore drooping eagle's wings. Cranach shared the new signature with his second son Lucas the Younger, who was more lax in permitting his pupils to use it. Lucas the Younger and his pupils were not invariably mediocre painters, but it rarely calls for profound connoisseurship to distinguish their pictures from those of the Elder Cranach.

What the Elder Cranach liked best were landscapes, animals and slender, lithe women, although as time went by his joy in these paled like wisteria at the end of May, becoming frailer, airier, more elegant. By the time he became court-painter to Frederick the Wise, the Electoral Duke of Saxony, the cruelties of his age had ceased to pollute his imagination. Frederick was one of the best of men (sympathetic to the mounting grievances of the peasants, allowing Wittenberg self-rule under its Town Council, and protective of his subject Luther whilst remaining a Catholic himself) but in art he had a taste for painful and lugubrious themes such as The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand Christians, which Diirer painted for him. …

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