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: Two Portraits by Lucas Cranach, the Elder


Dr. Harold Joachim



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Portraiture of the great but brief period of German Renaissance painting has never ceased to cast its spell of magic realism over later generations, because here, more than in Flemish or Italian painting, the bonds of formality were broken and the portrayed often imposes his physical and spiritual presence with almost aggressive force upon the spectator-certainly in Dürer's famous portraits of Krell, Pirckheimer or Holzschuher. Characteristically, the most impressive of these portraits were not of princes or noblemen, but of merchants, scholars or artists, men who owned their status to their own stamina and intelligence. For this was an era in which a rising middle class had gained education and prosperity and had wrested much power from the nobility and clergy.Dürer, burn in 1471 in Nuremberg, artistic center of Franconia, was the leader in this new kind of portraiture, but Cranach, born in 1472 in Kronach in northern Franconia close to the Saxonian border, was not far behind. But whereas Dürer's artistic development in his most formative years, the fourteen nineties, is now well known, nothing remains of Cranach's work until about 1502 or 1503. He was then in Vienna, and there he created two pairs of portraits which in warmth and intensity of expression he has never surpassed even though his draftsmanship may have become more assured in his later work. These are the portraits of Dr. Cuspinian and his wife1 and of Dr. Reuss2 and his wife.3 Both men, though not older than the painter, were leading scholars at the University of Vienna.About Easter, 1505, Cranach moved to Wittenberg to become court painter to Frederick III (called "the Wise") of Saxony, then the most brilliant personality among the German Empire's seven powerful Electors. Frederick was determined to make an intellectual and artistic center out of the small and provincial town of Wittenberg. In 1502, he had founded the University which soon was to gain fame throughout the Christian world through one of its professors, Martin Luther, and now he had found in Cranach an artist of apparently unlimited inventiveness and capacity for work. The artist painted portraits and altar panels, he decorated the Elector's various palaces with large canvases (none of which have survived), he devised temporary decorations for festivities and he accompanied the Elector on stag, boar and fowl hunts, sketching right in the field. He also was in charge of purchasing art objects, from paintings to reliquaries for the church, a collection of which Frederick was very proud until Luther voiced his disapproval of them. In 1508 Cranach even was sent as the Elector's special envoy to the Netherlands. Yet it would be wrong to think of Cranach merely as a courtier. He was a proud citizen of a new era, engaging successfully in business and civic affairs. He acquired a pharmacy, a book shop and a printing press on which he printed some of Luther's writings. Eight times he was elected a member of the city council and three times mayor.It was inevitable that all this had to affect his art, and particularly after 1520, his style froze into an amiable mannerism which could easily be imitated by his two sons and others assistants. As Max J. Friedläder, the world's leading authority on early Flemish and German painting, pointed out, any attempt of a clear-cut distinction between the work of Cranach and his assistants becomes futile after about 1520. There still remains an undeniable quaint charm in his later work which even in our time has intrigued as un-Germanic a painter as Pablo Picasso, but the fire of the early years has gone out.Of the portraits done before 1520, those of Moritz Buchner and his wife Anna, born Lindacker, now acquired by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, have been acclaimed as particularly distinguished and well-preserved examples4 ever since they were introduced to a wider public in the exhibition of the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen collection at the Frankfurt museum in 1928. After the dispersal of that collection they were acquired by Oscar F. Oppenheimer in Frankfurt and later they went to Switzerland whence they were brought to this country.Moritz Buchner was a merchant and alderman of Leipzig, member of a family which came from Eisleben (Luther's birthplace) and had gained wealth in the Thuringian mining industry.5 A dignified and well-groomed man of the world, he gazes at the spectator with shrewd, appraising but not unkind eyes. Of the three rings on his left hand, one shows his coat of arms and the initials MB. The date 1518 and the artist's device of the winged serpent, adopted in 1508, appear on the left. In contrast to her husband, the dour-faced Anna Buchner, elaborately dressed and covered with jewelry, does not seek contact with the spectator. On the back of the man's portrait the combined arms of both families are painted.The great days of Wittenberg came to an end in 1547 when the new Elector, John Frederick (nephew of Frederick the Wise who had died in 1525), was defeated by Emperor Charles V in the battle of Mühlberg,6 stripped of his electoral status had taken prisoner. In 1550, Cranach joined John Frederick in Augsburg and, after the prisoner's release two years later, in Weimar which had remained one of the Duke's possessions. There Cranach died in 1553. That he still could rise to considerable heights as a portrait painter in these years is proved by his moving self-portrait of 1550 at the age of 77.7Finally, some closing remarks should be made about the woodcuts and engravings which together with the two paintings are currently on exhibition in the Institute. The greater bulk of Cranach's print production extends from his Viennese period in the early years of the century to about 1510, and only a few works of importance followed later. A splendid example of his early, emotionally charged style, is the large Agony in the Garden, probably done about 1503.8 Although inspired by Dürer's woodcuts of the Large Passion of about 1498, Cranach's woodcuts abandons the clear definition of form, which always prevails in Dürer's work, in favor of a whirl of turbulent motion which consumes human forms, garments, rocks and trees. Shall we call it Late Gothic, Baroque or Expressionism? These are merely different terms for one and the same phenomenon which again and again breaks to the surface in German art.All his woodcuts done in Wittenberg from 1505 on bear Cranach's signature together with the arms of Saxony. Some of these woodcuts reveal Cranach's earthy sense of humor, such as The Temptation of St. Anthony in which the freakish saint is more frightening than the beasts which lifted him off the ground, or The Rest on the Flight to Egypt where plump little cherubs have a field day, or the Fall of Man where a forest of antlers of stately reposing stags almost obscures the main subject. 1509 was the most fruitful year of Cranach as a printmaker. In that year, he not only turned to engraving which he treated in a free and informal manner completely different from Dürer's, but he also created one of the finest illustrated books of the period, the Wittenberg Book of Reliquaries.9 Of special importance in the history of portraiture are the engravings and woodcuts which Cranach made of Luther. The earliest and also the most personal of these is the engraving of 1520, showing Luther in the habit of an Augustinian monk. Strangely enough, Cranach never made another portrait of Luther in which the intense fervor of the reformator is brought out with such force. This is a personal document, quite different from any later portraits of Luther which were made for wide commercial distribution.Endnotes
  1. Rediscovered in 1926 and now in the collection of Oscar Reinhart, Winterthur.
  2. Germanic Museum, Nuremberg.
  3. Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin
  4. The paintings were first mentioned in Eduard Flechig, Cranaschstudien, Leipzig 1900, p. 103 (wrong identification of the subjects). They are mentioned and reproduced in the following important monographs: Friedländer and Rosenberg, Die Gemälde von Lucas Cranach, Berlin 1932, p. 50, pl, 108-109; H. Posse, Lucas Cranach d. "A"., Vienna 1942, pl. 47-48; Lucas Cranach der Ältere: Der Küstler und seine Zeit. Veröffentlichung der Deutschen Akademie der Küste, Berlin 1953, p. 52, pl. 56-57.
  5. For this information we are indebted to the Municipal Library in Leipzig.
  6. A battle which is mainly remembered because of Titian's masterly portrait of Emperor Charles V on horseback. (Prado, Madrid)
  7. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.
  8. The only known impression is owned by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  9. Lent by The Art Institute of Chicago which owns the only copy in the United States.
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Coats of arms of the families of Buchner and Lindacker. Reverse side of the Portrait of Moritz Buchner.
  2. Lucas Cranach, the Elder. Portrait of Moritz Buchner. Oil on panel, 16 1/8" x 10 3/4". John R. Van Derlip Fund, 1957.
  3. Lucas Cranach, the Elder. Portrait of Anna Buchner. Oil on panel, 16 1/8 x 10 3/4". John R. Van Derlip Fund, 1957.
  4. Lucas Cranach, the Elder. The Agony in the Garden. Woodcut, c. 1503. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  5. Lucas Cranach, the Elder. Luther as Augustinian Monk. Engraving, 1520. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  6. Cranach's signature (enlarged) on portrait of Moritz Buchner.
  7. Lucas Cranach, the Elder. Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, Adoring the Madonna. Woodcut, c. 1515. Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
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Source: Harold Joachim, "Two Portraits by Lucas Cranach, the Elder," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 46, no. 3 (Autumn, 1957): 43-51.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009