Presenting a major acquisition
Thanks to the cooperation of the Fundación BBVA, the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum has acquired a major work by Lucas Cranach the Elder, one of the great painters in art history and, with Albrecht Dürer, a leading figure of the German Renaissance
The Museum has acquired Lucretia (oil on panel. 50.8 x 35.8 cm), painted in 1534 by Lucas Cranach the Elder (Kronach, Germany, 1472Weimar, Germany, 1553), from a private collection in Madrid. To meet the asking price of 1,400,000, the Museum drew on the acquisitions fund made available by major Spanish bank BBVA. Since 2002, the fund has given the Museum an enviable capacity to enhance its collection and it was recently revamped with a further 2.1 million over a seven-year period, during which time the Museum founders (Bilbao City Council, the Bizkaia Provincial Council and the Basque regional government) will repay the principal, while the bank, as a Trustee of the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum Foundation, takes care of the interest.
Over the past few years, the Museum has sought to make major additions to its Old Master artwork collection. With the recent renewal of the agreement between the Museum and the BBVA, and the appearance of a major work by one of the leading figures in the whole of Western art, this was quite clearly a unique opportunity to significantly enhance the Museum’s Old Master collection.
Another factor in the situation was the current economic crisis, and its influence on the art market. A look at two other recent acquisitions of works by Lucas Cranach the Elder give an idea of the significance of the acquisition of an autograph work by the artist: in March 2010 King David and Bathsheba (1534) sold for 5.3 million to a private collector at the Maastricht art and antiques fair, and in December of the same year the Louvre acquired The Three Graces (1531) for 4 million.
With this latest acquisition, the Museum has also filled a gap in its selection of masterworks, this being the first work by Lucas Cranach the Elder in the collection. It is also a substantial addition to the cast of Renaissance painters from northern Europe now represented in Bilbao, which holds major works by primitive Flemish and Dutch artists who were Cranach’s contemporaries, including Jan Gossart‘s The Holy Family (c. 1525-1530), Pietà at the Foot of the Cross (c. 1530) by Ambrosius Benson and Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (first half of the 16th century) by Pieter Coecke.
Lucas Cranach the Elder (Kronach, Germany, 1472Weimar, Germany, 1553)
A painter and engraver, Lucas Cranach the Elder is one of the world’s great artists and, with Albrecht Dürer, a leading figure of the German Renaissance. His adopted surname comes from his birthplace, the small German city of Kronach (Franconia), where his father taught him the rudiments of his craft. A fervent enthusiast of the Protestant Reformation, he was a close friend of Martin Luther, for whom he painted educational religious works and several portraits. He also created his own ideal of the female nude, which remains attractive and alluring even today.
Little is known of his early years, although he is recorded as being in Vienna in 1502 or thereabouts. The atmosphere revolving around the university there had a great influence on Cranach, who soon assimilated humanistic ideals. In 1505 he was in Wittenberg, where he remained until 1550, on being appointed court painter to the elector Friedrich III. There, continuing in the humanistic mode, he worked as a painter and engraver while also organizing guilds, supervising architectural projects, overseeing ceremonies and taking responsibility for the general aesthetic feel of the court. As burgomaster of the city, he was also the proprietor of a bookshop and an apothecary shop, launching a number of other business initiatives that brought him prosperity and social status.
In 1508 he went on a diplomatic mission to the Emperor Maximilian‘s court in the Netherlands. At this point an appreciable shift in his painting occurred towards much more smoothly modelled figures. From 1520 commissions flowed into his busy workshop, where his sons Hans and Lucas Cranach the Younger both worked. Besides religious themes and portraits, the workshop produced many works on classical and mythological themes.
In the last years of his life Cranach accompanied the Elector John Frederick I into exile, first to Augsburg and then to Weimar, where he died in 1553. A versatile, prolific artist, Lucas Cranach the Elder left a large body of paintings and engravings, and a workshop that survived him and continued to create versions of his works decades after his death.
According to Livy, in a version taken up subsequently by a number of historians that provided inspiration for many writers and painters, Lucretia was a virtuous young woman married to a Roman noble, a relative of Tarquin the Proud. Inflamed by her beauty and virtue, Tarquin’s son, Sextus Tarquinius, triedand failedto seduce her; finally, he resorted to rape. Lucretia confessed to her father and her husband, making them swear vengeance before stabbing herself to death in their presence. Her brother, Lucius Junius, avenged her by killing Sextus, bringing about the end of the Roman monarchy and ushering in the Republic in the process.
The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum’s Lucretia
The Bilbao Fine Arts Museum adds another oil painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder to the small group of original works by the artist in Spanish museums: five belong to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, four are in the Prado, one in the Lázaro Galdiano Museum, one in the Seville Fine Arts Museum and one in the National Museum of Art in Catalonia. Only one of these, The Nymph at the Fountain, in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, portrays a female nude; the others deal with religious themes, or are portraits or landscapes. It was published for the first time in Christian Zervos’s Nus de Lucas Cranach l’ancien, published in 1950 in Paris.
Dating from 1534 and signed with the painter’s winged serpent anagram, Lucretia is painted in oils on a 50.8 by 35.8 cm beechwood panel that has been in a Spanish collection for generations. The Marquis of Rafal was exiled to Vienna in the early 18th century for leading the Orihuela uprising in support of Archduke Charles during the War of the Spanish Succession (17011713). Granted an amnesty under the Treaty of Utrecht, he brought Cranach’s work back from exile with him to his palace at Orihuela. In the late 19th century the painting was moved to Madrid, where it has remained ever since, being moved only during the Spanish Civil War, when it was taken to Figueras with the paintings from the Prado. Acting on the recommendations of a report issued by the Prado Museum, the National Board for the Classification, Appraisal & Exportation of Spain’s Historic Heritage recently declared the work a non-exportable asset.
The painting is a “signed” original work by Lucas Cranach the Elder, with no contributions from his workshop. A profane theme typical of the humanistic fervour at the Court and the aristocracy’s interest in classical themes, the subject gives Cranach the pretext to paint one of the most beautiful nudes in his entire oeuvre. It was certainly one of Cranach’s preferred themes, as he produced, on his own or with the help of members of his workshop, more than sixty versions.
Set against a dark background, the figure of Lucretia, here semi-nude in three-quarter length, is portrayed with the painstaking technique so characteristic of the German Master. She retains the rich accessories at the neck and the link necklace that lies on her chest, objects proper to her noble status; like the handle of the dagger in her right hand, this craftsmanship in precious metals is elaborately portrayed. In the absence of any other decorative features and even of a landscape in the background, all our attention is concentrated on Lucretia and the pale beauty of her body, which Cranach highlights with a powerful beam of light. Heightening the tactile quality of these things is the garnet velvet cloak that covers part of her body; Cranach uses other, infinitely more subtle refinements, including the hair and the thin veil, to underscore the nude’s sensuality and to position arms and hands. The magnificent drawing, the rounded forms and the undulating rhythm of the silhouette into which Cranach fits the composition prompts the observer to look over the entire figure before allowing his gaze to rest on the fascinating beauty of the face and the dreamy expression of the heroine about to die. This is without doubt one of the most exquisitely beautiful and refined works the prolific artist Lucas Cranach the Elder ever produced.