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Portrait of a lady, three-quarter-length

Portrait of a lady, three-quarter-length
signed with the artist's serpent device and dated '152[?]'
oil on panel
5 3/4 x 5 5/8 in. (14.6 x 14.4 cm.)
with inscription: 'AGNES DVCISSA/Otthonis Magni Conjunx/Mater Stematum/Vtriusq Serenissimae Dom/Electoralis/Bavaricae & Palatinae & c.' (on the reverse)
(Possibly) brought from Saxony to Spain by Doña María Amalia of Saxony, wife of Charles III, King of Spain (1759-1789), and by descent to,
Don Gabriel de Borbón y Sajonia, Prince of Spain and Portugal, and by descent to his son,
Don Pedro Carlos de Borbón y Braganza, and by descent to his son,
Don Luis de Borbón y Borbón, and by descent to his son,
Don Manfredo de Borbón y Bernaldo de Quirós, Duke of Hernai (1889-1979), by whom gifted in 1968 to his nephew, and by whom sold,
Sotheby's private sales, where acquired circa 2009 by the present owner.
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Joshua Glazer
Joshua Glazer Specialist, Head of Private Sales

Lot Essay

Lucas Cranach the Elder painted this intimately-scaled portrait of a beautiful woman in the late 1520s, while working at the height of his powers at the Saxon court in Wittenberg. The artist had developed this new compositional type, in which he represented idealized women in elegant, courtly dress, set against black backgrounds only a few years earlier, around the middle of the third decade of the fifteenth century. These works are universally painted on small panels and depict women in half-length to full-length poses. Max J. Friedländer and Jakob Rosenberg identified six paintings belonging to this group, including examples in the National Gallery, London (fig. 1), the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen and the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart (M.J. Friedländer and J. Rosenberg, The Paintings of Lucas Cranach, London, 1978, nos. 171-5 and 178). Others, most notably the present work, have since come to light.

The precise function of these paintings remains unclear. Executed on a small scale, often without any indication of who the sitters might be, they may have been conceived as generalized depictions of feminine beauty. Some scholars have suggested that they actually are idealized portraits of specific ladies of the Saxon Court or, alternatively, concealed portraits of mistresses, whose features were intentionally perfected so that only their lovers would have recognize them (see B. Brinkmann, ed., Cranach, exhibition catalogue, Frankfurt and London, 2007–8, under no. 78, p. 278). The woman in the 1525-27 Portrait of a Woman in the National Gallery, London, for instance, wears a bodice decorated with pearls set into a pattern of repeated letter “M”s, which has been interpreted by some to be an indication of the sitter’s name. Susan Foister has rightly observed that the M could equally refer to Saint Mary Magdalen, a reading that would suggest it is a disguised portrait. Foister notes, however, that it would be unlikely for anyone other than a courtesan to choose to be identified with such an erotically-charged saint (S. Foister, ‘Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portrait of a Woman’, published online 2015, from The German Paintings before 1800, London: forthcoming). Indeed, one would expect courtly women to prefer to be portrayed as heroines such as Judith, Saint Barbara or even Salome, all of whom were subjects favored by Cranach.

The woman is the present portrait is dressed according to the fashion of the highest society of the16th-century Saxon court. She wears a red velvet dress with slashed sleeves and a gold, low-cut bodice adorned with an acanthus design, with matching bands on her sleeves and long cuffs. Similar gold material is used for her hairnet. A white undergarment is visible beneath black lacing that runs across her stomach. Her ensemble is completed by a large red hat and opulent jewelry, including a large, heavy gold chain and a close-fitting jeweled collar. Similar outfits are seen in the other portraits from this group, as well as several of the artist’s subject pictures. Bathsheba and her ladies in waiting, for example, are similarly attired in Cranach’s David and Bathsheba, painted in Wittenberg, 1526 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; fig. 2).

Here, Cranach portrays his sitter in a three-quarter pose. She tilts her head downward slightly, yet significantly, she raises her eyes to meet the viewer’s gaze directly. As Foister has observed, though there are few surviving identifiable portraits of courtly women by Lucas Cranach the Elder, nearly all of them portray their sitters in three-quarter profile, with their eyes averted from the viewer’s gaze (ibid.). Two of the three Saxon princesses, Sibylla, Emilia, and Sidonia, in their triple portrait in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, do look out at the viewer, as does Katharina von Bora in many of her portraits by Cranach and his workshop, but these images are completely different in conception and function. The sitter’s direct gaze here may be an indication that the portrait was a highly personal object not intended for public display, or, that the woman depicted was not intended to be recognized as a specific individual.

Originally circular in format, as confirmed by x-radiographic imaging, the panel was at some early stage expanded into a square. It was presumably at that time that the backing panel, with its extensive inscription, was added to the reverse. The text reads:

'AGNES DVCISSA/Otthonis Magni Conjunx/Mater Stematum/Vtriusq Serenissimae Dom/Electoralis/Bavaricae & Palatinae & c.'
'Duchess Agnes, wife of Otto the Great, Mother of the Genealogical Branch of the Electoral Houses of Bavaria & The Palatinate & others.'

The identification of the sitter as “Duchess Agnes”, is somewhat problematic, as the Holy Roman Emperor Otto the Great did not have a wife of that name. The inscription could, however, have been intended to identify the woman as Agnes of Loon (1150-1191), who was a duchess and wife of Otto I of Wittelsbach, Duke of Bavaria, or equally Agnes of the Palatinate (1201-1267), who wed Otto II of Wittelsbach, Duke of Bavaria. While either of these latter two identifications might be possible, the inscription might also be an apocryphal fantasy intended to enhance the painting’s already fascinating history.

This painting has a distinguished provenance. It is thought to have been in the collection of Doña Maria Amalia of Saxony, who by tradition is said to have brought it to Spain on the occasion of her marriage to King Charles III (1759-1789). The painting would have then passed to her son, Don Gabriel de Borbón y Sajonia, Prince of Spain and Portugal, who married Doña Mariana Victoria de Braganza, daughter of Pedro III, King of Portugal. It was inherited by their son, Don Pedro Carlos de Borbón y Braganza, who married Doña Maria Teresa de Braganza y Borbón, Princess of Spain. It was then inherited by their son, Don Luis de Borbón y Borbón, who wed Doña Germana Bernaldo de Quirós y Muños, and later by their son, Don Manfredo de Borbón y Bernaldo de Quirós, Duke of Mernani, who gave it to his nephew on the occasion of his marriage in 1968. It remained in that collection until it was acquired by the present owner.

The attribution to Lucas Cranach the Elder was endorsed by Dieter Koepplin and Werner Schade on the basis of photographs (written communication, 27 February 2001 and 7 October 2009, respectively).


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