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Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Northern Renaissance

One of the interesting things about exploring art and art history is that just when you think you know it all you discover an artist so interesting and important you find yourself asking yourself, "Why have I never heard of this guy before?" Not long ago in discussing briefly the Northern Renaissance I mentioned Albrecht Durer and found reference to a contemporary by the name of Lucas Cranach the Elder, born in an area of Germany known as Franconia in 1572. I must admit to being more interested in the Italian Renaissance than its northern counterpart, and also, Durer and Hans Holbein tend to outshine all the others from this region to the point that I've never looked at much beyond their outstanding work. But Cranach is a fascinating artist and individual, no threat to either of the other two in terms of the greatness of his work, but nonetheless an outstanding artist whose work stands barely one notch below theirs.

He appears to have been a rather ambitious man, artistically as well as socially. After studying in Vienna between 1501 and 1504, he moved to Wittenberg where he was appointed the court painter to Friederich the Wise, the Elector of Saxon. There he met and married the daughter of the mayor of Gotha, and several times became a city councilman. He was twice elected mayor of Wittenberg. Early on he set about building and/or remodeling a rather large house which he apparently needed to contain a very prosperous manufacturing business employing a number of assistants in creating everything from copies of his best paintings to his own furniture designs--kind of a Northern Renaissance version of Martha Stewart.

Crucifixion with the Converted
Centurion, 1536,
Lucas Cranach (the elder)
Cranach had two sons, Hans and Lucas (the younger) who were also artists.  Hans is said to have been the better of the two but he died in Bologna at the age of 24, leaving only his father's namesake to carry on in "the business." Lucas the elder painted religious scenes, some of which, while no doubt sincere, tended to have some rather strange contextual elements. One, for instance, The Crucifixion with the Converted Centurion, painted in 1536, depicts the Roman centurion  before the three crosses, dressed in the full regalia of a Teutonic knight, astride a galloping, somewhat horizontally challenged, version of a horse. Rather than being inspiring, it's quaintly comical. His portraits are much better, sensitive, though typically overdressed and busy by modern standards.
The Princess of Saxony, 1517,
Lucas Cranach (the younger)

The Princess of Saxony, by Lucas (the younger) painted in 1517 is similar to the father's work only better. The young girl of about ten seems quite a Sweet young lady, but shy and a bit uncomfortable amid the endless German preoccupation with the delicacies of her flowing red hair, golden jewelry, and intricately fashioned red dress. However, for a second-rate painter as much interested in social climbing as art, his work is not without some merit and is valuable for use in placing in context the work of Durer and Holbein.

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