Art Thoughts, Week 30 -- Cranach & Advertising

Portrait of Frederick the Wise, Duke of Saxony, Lucas Cranach the Elder (German, 1472—1553) c. 1525, oil on panel, BF 867.

What is a portrait, anyway? At its most obvious, it’s a picture; a portrayal of something or someone (usually a one) which normally gives a face prominence: a likeness, if you will. Formally, generically; that’s what a portrait is. But perhaps more pointedly, what is a portrait for…or what does it do? For starters, they are painted for posterity; popularity; ego and profit. When Lucas Cranach the Elder (or someone in his reputedly large workshop) painted this portrait of Frederick the Wise, a popular contemporary German ruler, what reasons lay beneath it? A portrayal, it should be said, is vastly more than a simple picture, or a record of a particular slice of time in a person’s face or psyche. It is more often than not an attempt to put the portrayed in a good light. Not until the early modern era in painting did realism, per se, gain a stronghold on how artists portrayed things and people. The art of portraiture would have leaned rather heavily towards idealism. And an artist had to be careful; to put too fine a point on facial aberrations, deformities and the like, would cause the rendering to easily tip over into caricature; a result worse than overt idealism. One doesn’t realize how odd one looks until captured and frozen. There had to be a delicate balance between honest portrayal on one hand, and selective idealism on the other. To rephrase Teddy Roosevelt, artists had to walk softly and carry a large brush.

The greatest benefactor of a portrait highlighting a sitter’s best and most refined qualities would be, of course, the sitter. For someone like Frederick the Wise, it could be tantamount to propaganda. Just look at this portrait for a while: see the three-quarter view, the most flattering of views for most faces regardless of features; the healthily plump face and chest, and fine but understated fur, denoting humility in wealth and temperance in vices; the delicate eyes and well-formed mouth which belie his status, but show his wisdom in both thought and action; see the hopefulness of a clear and boundless sky, suggested by the rich turquoise background. All of this is discreetly and skillfully done by Cranach to show off the best of Frederick the Wise to his peers and constituents.

But is the duke the only one benefitting from this judicious and even beautiful portrayal? Surely not – with a deft stroke such as this painting, the “circle of Cranach,” as emulators en masse of famous artists are sometimes called, gained a heightened reputation as well, from both skill and by association. Artists would glom immediately onto a portrait request from a prominent person, since it meant, in all actuality, that more prominent portraits would follow, and perhaps sales for the artist’s other genre pieces, if the initial contract was fulfilled satisfactorily; with appeal and verve. (An official court painter position might have even been a possibility, as it was for Cranach.) In addition, if the personage was already a popular leader, there could be requests for copies or prints of the original, by other patrons and fanatics of both master and sitter. Another example of this is Chardin, who painted numerous copies of his most popular domestic interiors, in order to increase sales. And in his casual assumption of reproduction equaling art Andy Warhol was groundbreaking, but not necessarily revolutionary. All in all, it meant a profitable and happy return for all parties involved, if the project was successful. Therefore, this portrait is not just propaganda, as mentioned before, but also mid-sixteenth century advertising.

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