Lucas Cranach The Younger
1515 – 1586
Painted after 1537
Oil on panel: 29 7/8 x 22 3/4 inches, 75.7 x 57.7 cm
- With the Weiss Gallery 2014, sold to
- Private collection, UK
- The Burlington Magazine, May 1965, vol. 107, Exhibition Reviews.
Of all the subjects that emanated from the studio of Lucas Cranach the Elder and his son, it was the seductive female nude that most beguiled their wealthy noble patrons, be it Eve, Venus, a nymph or as here, Lucretia. Today their sensuality continues to fascinate, and they remain the most iconic and desirable of the Cranach oeuvre, representing the pinnacle of the duo’s painterly brilliance and innovation.
The design of this subject was first devised by Cranach the Elder and its obvious appeal to patrons saw its usage throughout the life of the Cranach studio, recreated in differing versions. All versions present Lucretia standing, holding a dagger at her breast. In other versions a landscape can be seen in the distance or she sports a fur-lined mantle, sensuously caressing Lucretia's skin. Ours, painted some time after 1537 by Cranach the Younger, is amongst the most arresting, with her body and face partially draped in tantalisingly diaphanous gauze. The supple outline of her body is the culmination of years of working in the ‘bella maniera’, a style that arguably none since Dürer had achieved with such success. Her pearlescent skin is offset by the dark background and golden highlights of her hair and jewellery. The richly impasted chains and jewels are almost three-dimensional in their brush-work. Her slanting blue eyes, protuberant ears and small, precise mouth with its suggestion of tiny teeth, are typical of the Cranach idealisation of female beauty. The subtle modelling of her flesh is a delicate pink and white confection of alabaster perfection, from the blush around her nipples to the shadow carefully observed and cast by the dagger across her chest.
Humanist themes such as the story of Lucretia were increasingly in demand as artistic subjects at this time, as the popularity of religious subjects declined. Indeed, it was in Wittenberg that Luther, who taught at the university, launched his reform. It was in this context that Cranach’s studio flourished, developing eruditely profane themes, often treated in the form of allegories. Lucretia is a superb example. Its iconography cannot but be understood in relation to the humanist movement of the era.
According to Livy, Lucretia, a virtuous Roman noblewoman was violated by Sextus Tarquinius, the violent son of the reigning Roman king. Dishonoured and distraught, Lucretia summoned her family to tell them what had happened, swearing them to vengeance against the Tarquinian dynasty. With the eyes of her husband, father and brothers upon her, Lucretia suddenly drew a blade and killed herself. Thus her action became the catalyst for the expulsion of the Tarquins, the outlawing of kingship in Rome and the birth of the Roman Republic.
Combining an example of outstanding moral virtue, a political message calling for the downfall of tyranny, a poignant moment of emotional drama and an excuse to paint a beautiful female nude, Lucretia afforded artists an opportunity to demonstrate their erudition, psychological sophistication and technical skill. It was to become the Cranach duo's favourite subject, one they returned to again and again, on different scales and in differing arrangements, endlessly exploring the dramatic potential of Lucretia's pose and expression, and the visual effectiveness of various props and attributes. The patron or viewer are purposefully cast both as art connoisseurs admiring a torso worthy of the classical sculptors, and, more dramatically, as Lucretia's family members – witnessing her virtuous sacrifice: lamenting it, unable to avert it and ultimately inspired by her principles and her courage.
 Other notable examples include the three-quarter-length Lucretia in Houston (University of Houston Foundation, gift of the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation) and the full-length in Vienna (Akademie der bildenden Künste; see M.J. Friedländer and J. Rosenberg, The Paintings of Lucas Cranach, London, 1978, nos. 237 and 238).
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