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As the most prolific and versatile artist of 16th-century Germany it is impossible to classify Lucas Cranach except by the title his talent, speed and efficiency earned him 'the swiftest of painters'.
A great artist of the Renaissance in Germany, Lucas Cranach was at the forefront of the new, forward-looking intellectual currents that were undermining the traditions of medieval Europe. Yet he spent most of his career in an isolated northern town and was only indirectly affected by the perfect expression of those ideas practised in Italy. As a result, his works can look quaint and provincial when compared with those of his southern contemporaries, Giorgione or Raphael. But, in his own context, he was just as progressive as they, and in some ways a more individual artist, precisely because of his isolation.
Nothing is known of Cranach's early work in his home town of Kronach, and we have to wait until he was in Vienna and 30 years old to see anything certainly by his hand. The wonderful Crucifixion and the woodcut of St Stephen produced in 1502, show that he had learned a great deal from Durer while his portraits of scholars from the university, including the rector, Johannes Cuspinian, show he was already in intellectual circles and absorbing ideas from Italy.
Cranach's work at the time gained its power through a marvellous understanding of landscape, achieved through close observation of nature and through the expressive power of his figures. These may not be classically proportioned or posed, but they do show an extraordinary range of dramatic gesture and action, all learned originally from Durer's woodcuts but developed with a nervous energy all Cranach's own.
Once in the service of Frederick the Wise in Wittenberg after 1505, Cranach's independent direction became even more marked. He adapted quickly to his role as court painter, falling in easily with the sensibilities of his patrons. The magnificent altarpiece of 1506 depicting The Martyrdom of St Catharine, for example, combines realism and a sensual joy in the qualities of colour, texture and line in a most complex and animated scene.
Cranach's state visit to the Netherlands in 1508, reinforced the influence of the Italian Renaissance in his work. The so-called Torgau Altarpiece, for example, showing a grouping of the Holy Family, has a more balanced composition, is less cluttered and has figures with real weight and solidity. Presumably the artists he met in the Low Countries showed Cranach collections of drawings and engravings from Italy. From this time, too, we also see the first classical subjects in his art. An engraving of 1508 has The Judgement of Paris as its theme, with the nudity of the three goddesses introducing what would later become the artist's most characteristic subject.
Although excited by these developments, the bulk of his work at this time was more conventional. Frederick the Wise's court required portraits, altarpieces and smaller devotional paintings to decorate chapels, and these Cranach began to produce in great number. The Elector and court could not fail to approve of such works, which were highly finished, sophisticated and produced regularly and to order. His portraits, in particular, showed members of the court in wonderfully elaborate and fashionable dress.
Cranach was not a temperamental artist who would keep frustrated patrons waiting years for a picture to be finished, but a highly professional manager of a workshop, proud of craftsmanship and efficiency. He clearly worked with a substantial team of assistants, yet there are no copies among the huge output. A painting might be done in different versions, but the master seems to have supervised closely and participated in almost everything, correcting details and carrying out the most difficult portions himself.
For portraits, Cranach would execute sketches in oil on paper from the noble sitters who increasingly demanded pictures from him and would then use these as a file copy from which repeated finished portraits could be produced over the years, varying the pose and costume without the necessity of another sitting. From 1520, this became even more necessary to meet the demand for portraits of Luther and the Saxon princes who led the Reformation.
From the later 1520s, the artistic mood we now call Mannerism began to spread from Italy. This signified a relaxation in the strictness of Renaissance classicism and a new concentration on the sensuous and the entertaining aspect of pictures. Cranach seems to have responded easily to this general trend for it more closely reflected his own artistic temperament. His portraits, particularly of women, became more idealized, with slender figures and small rounded heads. Their dress, in particular hats, became ever more obvious and in the latest fashion.
Gradually the sensuous nude, usually representing Eve, Lucretia or Venus, assumed a prominent place in Cranach's output. But these are no longer the classic nudes of the Renaissance: they are idealized court beauties titillatingly hiding their nakedness with transparent veils, or wearing jewellery or hats to accentuate their erotic availability. Meanwhile, his workshop continued the production line of portraits, devotional panels (now concentrating on themes acceptable to Reformation theology), mythological scenes and altarpieces. One of Cranach's last great works, painted in 1550 at the age of , was a self-portrait stern and as realistic as anything he had painted. If there is anything to be read from his unnerving direct gaze, it is pride in a job well done.
Writer – Marshall Cavendish