THE great Durer, returning reluctantly to the northern climate after the
Venetians had feted him, lamented the ignominious position of the German
artist at home; but his contemporary, Lucas Cranach, had no fault to find with
the painter’s lot.
Cranach, unhampered by Olympian aspirations, was the
founder of the Saxon school, essentially Gothic like Durer, contentedly local,
and also a great artist when the demands on his lightheartedness were not ex
orbitant. At the age of thirty-four, he was appointed court painter to the Elector
of Saxony, at Wittenberg, where he lived long and prospered, active in art
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He married the daughter of a wealthy patrician, and his loy
alty and charm gained him the monopoly of the sale of medicine and patent
rights on the printing of the Bible, a valuable privilege since he was a reformer
and a close friend of Martin Luther.
He was described by a famous humanist
as “an artist who worked more rapidly than any other, who was always with
a brush in his hand, and was never idle, not so much as a single hour.”
Cranach painted many religious subjects, but his secular works are even
more numerous. He loved to play with classical themes, and his elfin ventures
into mythology are among the most diverting pictures in art.
His favorite sub
ject was Venus, whom he painted innumerably, and always in the spirit of
comedy. In his Judgment of Paris, the goddess of love wears only a large red
hat and a golden chain; her rivals are exhibited in golden chains and wisps
of gauze, and Mars, a squat dolt, is dressed in a suit of armor. It used to be
said that Cranach tried to imitate the classics and succeeded only in being in
decent or preposterous.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. He knew little
about the Italians and cared less-he had a sense of humor and indulged it
cleanly. He introduced the comic element into nudity without becoming bawdy
or trivial-and no other artist of the first rank was equal to the performance.
The Nymph of the Spring, a mildly satirical fling at an old subject, is one
of his painted family: they are all alike–utterly lacking in self-consciousness,
as if they had worn nothing from birth but a necklace and bangle.
emphasis in one direction or the other, and the effect is obtrusively naive or
shamelessly carnal. Cranach invented his own type of nude, and not a meaty
German Miidchen by a long shot,
but a slender high-waisted girl with a broad
forehead, oblique eyes, and a small mouth and chin, and he painted the type
with mirthful imagination and native candor.