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LUCAS CRANACH THE ELDER

(And workshop)Portrait of Frederic the Wise

Panel: 65 x 47.5 cm

1530 - 1535

introduction

Lucas Cranach left Vienna in 1505, in answer to a call from the Prince Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, in Wittenberg, to become his official painter. This event marked a turning point in the career of the painter, who remained in the service of this princely family until the end of his days. Cranach’s privileged relationship with this dynasty favoured his rise within the bourgeoisie of Wittenberg and allowed him to develop a studio capable of meeting the court’s various requests.

Frederick the Wise died in 1525. His brother, John the Steadfast, succeeded him. The latter died in 1532 and his son, John the Magnanimous, inherited the title. It was during the same year that John the Magnanimous commissioned several portraits of his father and his uncle from Cranach, to be sent to the towns and princes who had sided with Protestantism. This commission allowed the artist to create a new iconography of the portrait whose function was no longer to simply uphold the memory of the prince elector in the private circle of the court of Wittenberg, but to serve as a means to spread the ideas of the Reformation. Martin Luther, who initiated the protest movement against the Catholic Church in 1517, found refuge with Frederick the Wise. Wittenberg thus became one of the bastions of the new religious thought. The choice of the prince electors of Saxony to support Luther’s movement and to offer him protection, gave them the status of official defenders of the Reformation. This portrait therefore falls within the context of intense production, motivated by the need to spread ideas. As a result, numerous variants and versions commissioned as of 1532 have passed through the ages. Among those owned by prestigious museums is a pair of portraits kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and one in the Uffizi in Florence ; each one portrays Frederick the Wise and John the Steadfast, and date from 1533. Nonetheless what makes this portrait especially unique is its uncommonly large size; granting the entity an unparalleled substantial value.

Frederick the Wise is portrayed in a three-quarter view against a solid bluish background. The subject is wearing a black hat, while a meticulously executed ample fur coat covers his shoulders, his lightly decorated collar and white undershirt. The black leather lace hanging around his neck is a symbol of the Order of the Golden Fleece. The portrait’s forefront displays the subject’s hands, the right one ornamented by a golden ring exhibiting a blue gem almost matching the background. The emblem of this order shows that the prince elector of Saxony belonged to the institution founded in Bruges in 1430 by Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, when he married Isabella of Portugal. The Order of the Golden Fleece, a name taken from Greek mythology, was intended to unite the nobility of the Burgundian states.

The artist imbues his subject with a certain timelessness. He constructs the face with a clear and pronounced stroke, carefully outlining the eyes, the nose and the beard. Each element is drawn with a perfect sinuosity that stands out all the more strongly against the neutral bluish background. The face’s different volumes are clearly defined by a uniform luminosity. His focused gaze emanates piousness and knowledge, complemented by his hands’ matching direction, a sense of solid determination is released. The power of this precise stroke, the neutral and pleasantly-coloured background and the uniformity of the work are all characteristics that form the basis of 16th century German portrait painting. Frederick the Wise is painted as a fair leader and guarantor of moral law, endowing him with wisdom and kindness. This portrait of high dimensions, highly resembles the version from Prince Georges de Saxe’s collection where he is portrayed at an older age. Cranach faithfully captured character and emotions, instantly creating a subtle dramatic tension in this masterpiece.


Provenance :
Private Collection, France.