This striking depiction of the suicide of Lucretia by Lucas Cranach the Elder is a superb example of what was probably the most in-demand of the many classical subjects treated by the painter. The story of the Roman heroine Lucretia attracted the intense interest of Renaissance artists and patrons in part because of its themes of sexual morality, honor, and political upheaval. Equally important to the subject’s appeal was the open eroticism it permitted. Cranach emphasized the erotic aspect in his numerous variations on the theme, each of which displays the naked or half-naked figure of Lucretia isolated from other elements of the narrative.
The tragic events of the Lucretia story take place in the late sixth century BC, a time of growing discontent over the rule of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (“the proud”), the tyrannical final king of Rome. From Livy, who gives the best-known account (Ad urbe condita 1,57–59), we learn that Lucretia was a beautiful, virtuous noblewoman and the wife of Collatinus, a relative of the king. During a late-night feast outside the city, Collatinus and the king’s sons began to debate the relative merit of their spouses, none of whom was present. To settle the matter, they went to observe the women at their homes: while the princes’ wives were discovered to be reveling, Lucretia was still busy spinning wool, which proved her superiority. One of the princes, Sextus Tarquinius, immediately became infatuated with her. On a night when Collatinus was away from home, Sextus Tarquinius visited Lucretia, was refused by her, and then raped her at knifepoint. Afterward, the anguished Lucretia revealed the crime to her family and demanded vengeance. Then, wishing to expunge the dishonor of the rape, she drew a dagger and plunged it into her heart, killing herself. Brutus, a witness to her suicide, vowed swift revenge against the Tarquins; he led an uprising that expelled the king, ended the monarchy, and established the Roman republic. Lucretia’s violation and suicide thus occasioned a turning point in Roman history. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance she was seen as an exemplar of virtue because of her chastity, loyalty, and self-sacrifice.
This painting shows Lucretia seated before a black curtain which is open at the right, revealing a view onto a mountainous river valley. She clasps both hands around the pommel end of a dagger, aiming it at her chest. Her red velvet, fur-lined robe has dropped to her waist, and several locks of hair that have slipped loose from her snood are blowing in the wind. She wears a gold chain around her shoulders; a gold band set with gemstones and hung with pearls adorns her neck. Her facial expression – lips gently parted, eyes turned slightly upward, brow smooth and unfurrowed – is one of calm pathos and stoic resolve.
With regard to attribution and date, the present lot is consistent with works of highest quality produced by Cranach in the period of about 1525 to the mid-1530s. A date before 1537 is certain based on Cranach’s serpent insignia below the window ledge, the wings of which (damaged but discernible) are raised; from 1537 onward the wings were instead rendered as lowered. Although the painting’s current appearance is somewhat compromised by old surface losses and discolored retouchings, for example in the body of the figure and in the landscape, overall it is characterized by the deft, assured, and efficient brushwork for which Cranach is known. Of special note are the sensitive handling of the facial features, the calligraphic rendering of the highlights in the hair, the convincing modeling of volume in the hands, and the striking intensity of the red folds of the robe. In form and quality, the face compares particularly well to that of the smaller-format Portrait of a Woman of ca. 1525/27 in the National Gallery, London (fig. 1). The handling is also closely comparable, for example, to that of the Suicide of Lucretia of 1529 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (fig. 2). X-radiography of the present lot reveals a distribution of whites in the flesh that gives a strong impression of volume and relief (fig. 3). That appearance is characteristic of many pictures by Cranach, and it reflects but one of a range of methods used by the artist and his workshop to model the flesh tones (see G. Heydenreich, Lucas Cranach the Elder: Painting Materials, Techniques and Workshop Practice, Amsterdam, 2007, pp. 194–206). Another typical technical detail is visible in the X-ray: to either side of the figure, at shoulder and thigh level, one sees dark tangles of a fibrous material. Frequently the Cranach workshop affixed masses of long fibers to the unprepared panel before applying the ground layer, possibly as a means of stabilization. Once thought to consist of plant fibers, these are now known to have been sourced from animal tendons (see G. Heydenreich, D. Görres, and B. Wismer, eds., Lucas Cranach der Ältere: Meister, Marke, Moderne, exhibition catalogue, Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf, Munich, 2017, p. 258). While neither the particular flesh-tone buildup nor the fibrous applications assist in distinguishing hands, they do once again anchor the painting firmly within the workshop of Cranach.
Scholarship on Cranach has long noted the special challenges of separating autograph works from those by assistants, a point explored in great detail in recent literature (see G. Heydenreich, op. cit., 2007, esp. pp. 289–298). Given the workshop’s large volume of production, the standardized methods used to balance efficiency with quality, and the apparent aim of eliminating differences between the various hands, it is increasingly recognized that even in outstanding pictures the participation of assistants at various stages cannot be ruled out. However, absent obvious weaknesses, as is the case with the present lot, it is nevertheless justified to assume the authorship of Cranach himself.
In his nearly five decades as court painter to the electors of Saxony in Wittenberg, Cranach returned time and again to the subject of Lucretia. More than forty versions are known to survive. The earliest examples, from about 1510, are closely cropped, half-length depictions before a neutral black background. It has been suggested that they take their inspiration from northern Italian examples, such as those of Francesco Francia, which may have been known in Wittenberg (see G. Messling, ed., Die Welt des Lucas Cranach, exhibition catalogue, Palais des beaux-arts, Brussels, 2010, pp. 149–150, nos. 80–83). In the years that follow, in accordance with Cranach’s general artistic and entrepreneurial development, we observe a marked expansion in compositional variety. Continual variation became one of the distinguishing features of his vast production and is familiar from the numerous versions of other subjects as well, such as the Judgment of Paris, the Nymph of the Spring, or Judith with the Head of Holofernes. Thus, by the 1520s, Cranach presents Lucretia in ever-shifting combinations of pose, costume, emotional expression, and setting. We encounter her, for example, in windowed rooms with various landscape views or against a neutral black background, sometimes fully undressed, as in the 1528 full-length version in the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm (see Cranach Digital Archive, www.lucascranach.org, no. SE_NMS_1080), and at other times elaborately clothed, as in the 1529 example in Houston noted above (fig. 2), which varies the expression by introducing a look of distress in the eyes. Contrast that with the 1533 version in the Gema¨ldegalerie, Berlin (see Cranach Digital Archive, www.lucascranach.org, no. DE_smbGG_1832), in which Lucretia is shown nude and in full length before a black background, with a seductive expression which makes her almost indistinguishable from a Venus.
Like any other painter of his time, Cranach kept a stock of drawings in the workshop for use as models. In the case of Lucretia, two small sheets by the artist from about 1525 are preserved in the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin (the date of 1509 and insignia on one are probably by a later hand; see Düsseldorf, op. cit., 2017, pp. 67–68). These sketches show variants of the compositional type used for the present lot and for other generally similar versions. Given the rigorous practice of variation maintained by Cranach, it is likely that such drawings functioned not as models for repetition in paintings, but expressly as points of departure. It is conceivable, furthermore, that drawings of this sort could have been made as ricordi, meant to preserve a record of compositions that had left the workshop – a basis for variation in future paintings.
At first glance, the almost serene emotional tenor of the present lot seems to be at odds with the violent act taking place. Yet it is in line with the steadfast moral rectitude that Lucretia was understood to embody. Moreover, as scholars have noted with regard to other images of Lucretia, the depiction of a quiet demeanor in the moment before death establishes a parallel with Christian martyrdom (see C.M. Schuler, “Virtuous Model, Voluptuous Martyr: The Suicide of Lucretia in Northern Renaissance Art and Its Relationship to Late Medieval Devotional Imagery,” in Saints, Sinners, and Sisters, ed. J.L. Carroll and A.G. Stewart, Burlington, 2003, pp. 15–17). That connection is perhaps especially relevant to the present work because of the heroine’s clasped hands, which are reminiscent of the praying hands of a martyr saint before execution. The clasped hand position is in fact unusual among Cranach’s Lucretias: while they most often wield the dagger with one hand, and in some cases with both, only in rare other instances, such as the version in the Gema¨ldegalerie, Kassel (see Cranach Digital Archive, www.lucascranach.org, no. DE_MHK_GK14), are the hands folded together in this evocative manner. Thus, in the present work, especially in light of the figure’s calm countenance, the virtues represented by the pagan heroine were possibly augmented by an impression of Christian piety. Such a notion may have appealed to the Christian humanist sensibilities of Cranach’s courtly and learned patrons.
Ultimately, the question of display and interpretation of the present lot remains open. Scholarship has revealed a variety of uses for Lucretia imagery during the Renaissance: for example, in the domestic sphere as the verso decoration of marriage portraits, or in public contexts as political propaganda concerning ideals of governance. A rare documented context for a Lucretia by Cranach is, however, in keeping with the eroticism of his depictions: in 1513, the Roman heroine’s suicide was among several classical subjects with which Cranach decorated the nuptial bed of Duke Johann the Steadfast and Princess Margaret of Anhalt (see D. Koepplin and T. Falk, Lukas Cranach: Gemälde, Zeichnungen, Druckgraphik, exhibition catalogue, Kunstmuseum Basel, 2. vols., Basel and Stuttgart, 1974-76, pp. 21, 563).
Joshua P. Waterman