Locked out. I miss art. I miss museums and galleries and shared experiences. I miss the feeling of getting up close to a painting of an artist I love (long dead) and knowing that it was looked at with their eyes, created by their hand. That the very idea for it came directly from their mind. This is the reason I will always choose to see paintings in the flesh; I get to hang out with my heroes (a museum is far better than any fantasy dinner party).
But now? I call myself an art writer but I’ve never been so fraudulent! I’m seeing nothing, I’m writing about nothing. I can feel part of me dying down like a plant in autumn. I’m at a loss.
What next for us house-bound art lovers? Here is my remedy; never stop looking. Never stop thinking. Never stop appreciating. Ever.
For no reason at all aside from the desire (the need)to keep the fire of my cultural interest burning, I have been thinking about Lucas Cranach, one of the leading German painters and print makers of the 16th century. And so, if you fancy a little art historical respite, here are three of his paintings, pondered over by yours truly. Enjoy.
Saint Jerome kneels in front of a crucifixion. He is in a richly detailed landscape, filled with varied flora and fauna. Distant mountains can be seen in the far centre, and a church or monastery to the right. Jerome is certainly not in meditative prayer, rather he appears to be in an agitated state, pleading to the crucified Christ. As he gazes up, he is pulling at his beard, the veins in his lower right arm are prominent as he clasps the rock with which he is traditionally shown beating his chest in penance.
Saint Jerome was a great intellect and one of the Fathers of the early Christian Church, most famous for translating the entire Bible into Latin. The church in the background of the painting may allude to his pivotal position in the advance of western Christianity. We can immediately recognise the saint as Jerome, as he has been depicted with a lion. This is a reference to a well-known story from his life, in which he pulled a thorn from its paw, befriending the beast for life. The saint is usually depicted in one of two places; at his desk and deep in theological study, or in the desert, the unfriendly landscape serving as a metaphor for his decision to live a simple and penitent life as a hermit. However, Cranach has chosen to place him not in the wilderness at all, but in lush green surroundings. This is one of a number of early works by the artist in which landscape takes centre stage. While most of his contemporaries were focused on only producing works of Biblical history, Cranach took great joy in landscape painting for its own sake and would veer away from tradition in favour of it. His landscape painting had a major influence on the 16th century Danube School, a circle of expressive Bavarian and Austrian painters from the early to mid-16th century who included Albrecht Altdorfer and Wolf Huber.
These two companion portraits are thought to depict a betrothed couple. The pair are dressed in regal Saxon costume, painted in extraordinary detail by the artist. The boy wears a delicate crown tilted over his blond hair (his fringe is slightly wonkily cut). This crown is thought to signify his engagement to be married. The red brocade of his outfit is covered by a heavy cape. The girl is equally ornate. She is dressed in a heavy red fabric with a florally patterned velvet, ribboned bodice and slashed and puffed sleeves. Around her shoulders is an elaborate gold chain. She is wearing a necklace edged with white flowers. Their luxurious clothing is made all the more prominent surrounded by the plain black background.
It is thought that the boy is Johann, Duke of Saxony and the girl, Elisabeth of Hesse his fiancé. The art historian John Oliver Hand writes ‘These pictures rank among Cranach’s most engaging and charming portraits of children. In the expressions of the boy and girl the artist has captured the wistful innocence and gentle seriousness of childhood.’ However, despite this, there remains something strangely austere about the two portraits. They are playing at being adults. Hand’s ‘wistful innocence’ will all too soon become a thing of the past.
In 1504 Cranach accepted the position of Court Painter to the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, at Wittenberg. He spent the next fifty years of his life painting for the court and throughout, was in great demand as a portraitist. The fantastic skill displayed in these portraits make it very clear why.
But while painting the great and the good of the Saxon Court, Cranach was also more than partial to a nude. The Three Graces is no exception. This work is one of a number he painted on the same theme. The artist has depicted three young females in a trio of poses- from the back, front on, and in semi-profile. His Graces are set onto a plain black background. This makes their nudity all the more provocative, there is nothing to distract the viewer’s eye from their incessantly sexual naked forms. The Graces’ feet, amusingly realistic in comparison to their idealised bodies, stand heavily on the textured trompe l’oueil effect ledge to the lower edge of the work. The figure on the right leans her foot up onto the edge of the frame, as if it is something she might just walk straight out of. The two figures to the left hold a ream of semi-transparent material. This was a common addition in Cranach’s nudes, a subtle way of framing the natural curvature of his nude bodies.
The works small size (just 24 x 37 cm) indicates that it was commissioned for a patron’s home. While the faces of the figures to the left and right sit comfortably in Cranach’s usual style, the central figure differs. Her highly individualised face and invitingly direct gaze out at the viewer makes it likely that this was in fact, a portrait. This is only made more likely by the addition of the contemporary hat and jewellery- hardly items worn by this mythological trio. Cranach produced more images of the female nude than any other artist of the period and is thought to be the first artist to bring the nude genre to the medium of wood panel painting in Germany. However, it really wasn’t until the 19th century that depiction of the individual female nude was deemed acceptable. So how did artists get around this? They would use the guise of mythology and religion in order to paint the female form. Lucas Cranach certainly used this loophole in order to paint his sexualised, snake-limbed figures. But the question remains, just who has he painted?
One of these days the museums will open again, properly, and they’ll all be there. You see, that’s the lovely thing about paintings, they wait for us.