Cranach, the Elder was a German painter and printmaker in woodcut and
engraving. He was born Lucas Sunder at Kronach in upper Franconia, and
learned the art of drawing from his father. Very little is known of
Lucas Cranach's life before about 1500-1501, when he settled in Vienna
and started working in the humanist circles associated with the newly
founded university. Lucas Cranach, the Elder's stay in Vienna was brief,
leaving in 1504, but in his period there Lucas Cranach, the Elder
painted some of his finest and most original works. They include
portraits, notably those of Johannes Cuspinian, a lecturer at the
university, and his wife Anna. There are also several religious works in
which he shows a remarkable feeling for the beauty of landscape
characteristic of the Danube school. The oldest extant picture by
Cranach, the "Rest of the Virgin during the Flight into Egypt", (shown
here) marked with the initials L.C., and the date of 1504, is by far the
most graceful creation of his pencil. The scene is laid on the margin of
a forest of pines, and discloses the habits of a painter familiar with
the mountain scenery of Thuringia. There is more of gloom in landscapes
of a later time.. It was painted in 1504, just before Lucas Cranach, the
Elder went to Wittenberg as court painter to Frederick III (the Wise),
Elector of Saxony.
In 1505 Lucas Cranach, the Elder became court painter to the electors of Saxony at Wittenberg, a position he held until 1550. He was a prominent citizen in Wittenberg, received a title, and became mayor in 1537. Cranach gained great esteem in Wittenberg. In 1537 and again in 1540 Lucas Cranach, the Elder was elected burgomaster of Wittenberg. In 1508 Lucas Cranach visited the Netherlands, where he painted portraits of such royalty as Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and the young prince who succeeded him as Charles V.
For his electoral patrons Lucas Cranach, the Elder painted biblical and mythological scenes with decorative sensual nudes that were new to German painting. These works include many versions of "Adam and Eve", "The Judgment of Paris", and "Venu"s (shown here). As a composer Cranach was not greatly gifted. His ideal of the human shape was low; but he showed some freshness in the delineation of incident, though he not infrequently bordered on coarseness.
Lucas Cranach, the Elder was closely associated with the German Reformers. Cranach's chief occupation was that of portrait painting, and we are indebted to him chiefly for the preservation of the features of all the German Reformers and their princely adherents. Being a friend of Luther, Lucas Cranach, the Elder portrayed him several times. Lucas Cranach, the Elder became the great portraitist of the Reformation without, however, committing himself to any particular confession. He painted not only Martin Luther himself but also Luther's wife, mother and father.
In the second quarter of the 16th century, while his workshop was flourishing, Lucas Cranach, the Elder increasingly flavored a style tending towards the over-refined and mannerism. This is especially noticeable in his depiction of the female nude. Lucas Cranach's copper-plates and woodcuts are certainly the best outcome of his art; and the earlier they are in date the more conspicuous is their power. Cranach's art in its prime was doubtless influenced by causes which but slightly affected the art of the Italians, but weighed with potent consequence on that of the Netherlands and Germany.
The business of booksellers who sold woodcuts and engravings at fairs and markets in Germany naturally satisfied a craving which arose out of the paucity of wall paintings in churches and secular edifices. Drawing for woodcuts and engraving of copperplates became the occupation of artists of note, and the talents devoted in Italy to productions of the brush were here monopolized for designs on wood or on copper. This accounts for the comparative unproductiveness as painters of Dürer and Holbein, and at the same time explains the shallowness apparent in many of the later works of Lucas Cranach, the Elder. It also explains Cranach's neglect of effective color and light and shade for strong contrasts of flat tint. In 1550, faithful to the elector John Frederick, who was accused of treason by Emperor Charles V, Lucas Cranach, the Elder followed him in his exile at Augsburg, Innsbruck, and Weimar, where he died in 1553. Of three sons, all painters, the second, Lucas the Younger (1515-1586) painted so like his father that their works are difficult to distinguish.