In 1505 Lucas Cranach the Elder was appointed court painter to the Electors of Saxony at Wittenberg, serving successively Friedrich III, the Wise, Johann I, the Constant, and Johann Friedrich I, the Magnanimous. The sitter in this portrait, Johann, Duke of Saxony, Margrave of Meissen and Landgrave of Thuringia, was a member of the ducal or Albertine branch of the family as opposed to the electoral or Ernestine line. The bold design and dramatic color, and the capricious but graceful outline of the costume are typical of the style Cranach developed as a portraitist to the court.
Johann, Duke of Saxony, Margrave of Meissen, and Landgrave of Thuringia, was the son and heir apparent of Duke Georg the Bearded (r. 1500–1539) of the Albertine branch of the Wettin dynasty. Johann is notable mainly for the religiopolitical consequences of his early death and failure to produce a successor. Georg, a committed Roman Catholic and noted opponent of Martin Luther's religious reforms, outlived Johann and a younger son, Friedrich, both of whom died childless. Thus, upon Georg's death in 1539, his territories fell to his brother, Heinrich the Pious, a Lutheran convert who introduced the Protestant Reformation to the Albertine lands, including the ducal residence of Dresden.
Although the Museum's portrait bears no inscription or coat of arms, the identification is secure, for it is based on similar likenesses that explicitly name Johann. In the so-called Sächsisches Stammbuch (Sächsische Landesbibliothek, Dresden), with illustrations by the Cranach workshop of about 1540–46, he appears as "Hertzog Johans" next to his wife, Elisabeth of Hesse. A miniature portrait of about 1578–80 by Lucas Cranach the Younger (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), calls him "H[erzog]. Hans," and the Latin inscription on a likeness by Monogrammist I.S. describes him precisely as "Johann, Duke of Saxony, son of Georg."
The attribution of this portrait has received only cursory discussion. Upon its initial publication (Schuchardt 1851), it was included among the works of Lucas Cranach the Elder, and most references retain that attribution. Friedländer and Rosenberg (1932), however, tentatively ascribed it to Lucas Cranach the Younger, perceiving in it "empty grandeur," "pallid tones," and "feeble plasticity." These assessments fail to consider how the painting's condition adversely affects its appearance. The already thin layering of paint in the flesh areas was strongly abraded in past cleanings; also, the inner modeling of the costume has faded into a largely undifferentiated field of black. Both conditions increase the overall impression of flatness and stiffness.
In style and technique this work is consistent with other portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder and his workshop. As a member of the studio, Lucas the Younger could have had some involvement, but the painting does not display characteristic features, such as a dominant paleness in the flesh tones, that would justify distinguishing it as by his hand, as is possible with a few works of the the 1530s and with greater frequency in the 1540s. The modeling of the flesh in fact appears typical of a process used by the father, in which sparing applications of pinks and whites were laid over a thin base flesh color and in which shadows were established with dilute glazes of black pigments. The x-radiograph also shows that the base tone of the hands was brushed on loosely, beyond its visible contours in normal light; the final silhouette was defined only during the painting of the surrounding black costume, which overlaps the flesh tone. This time-saving technique occurs frequently in Cranach's oeuvre.
A specification of the portrait's date is offered by Cranach the Elder's strikingly similar portrait of the sitter's father, Georg the Bearded, of 1534 or 1535 (Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig), which may have provided a model for the size and design of the MMA painting. It also establishes a plausible earliest execution date for the latter. That date is consistent with the style of the painting and the mature appearance of the sitter. Furthermore, 1534 is the year in which cast shadows suddenly occur in several other works by Cranach and his workshop. Further evidence for dating is offered by the panel support, which is of beech wood. Dendrochronological research has shown that beech was used with greatest frequency by the Cranach workshop between 1522 and 1535, with some later occurrences. Although the present panel is not currently datable with dendrochronology, the use of beech suggests a date not considerably later than the mid-1530s. The combined evidence thus supports a plausible date range from 1534 to about 1537, the year of Johann's death. Whether this work was painted as a posthumous memorial, as Zimmermann (1942) suggested, cannot be ruled out, but the idea is not necessarily supported by the representation and therefore remains highly speculative.
[2013; adapted from Waterman 2013]
The support consists of two beech boards with the grain oriented vertically. Tow was applied to the recto, along the join, before the panel was prepared. The very thin white ground appears similar to grounds used in Cranach’s late paintings, when the workshop was highly productive. At some later date, the panel was thinned, strips of wood were attached to the top and bottom, and it was cradled. The entire verso is thickly coated with wax. The flesh tones of this portrait are very delicate and thinly painted, as is typical of Cranach, and harsh cleaning that took place before the portrait entered the Metropolitan Museum’s collection has thinned the paint layers further. The eyes present an interesting detail: a clean brush was pulled horizontally through the wet paint of the iris and pupil of the eye, in the direction of the sitter’s gaze. The background is heavily restored, and what appears to be a fine black ink was rubbed into the cracks throughout the painting. The subject’s cloak and hat are somewhat obscured by an uneven, hazy, brittle varnish that has developed a minute crack pattern. Infrared reflectography (see Additional Images, figs. 2–3) revealed a few lines of underdrawing. They indicate the bottom edge of the mouth and the junction of the upper and lower lips; a few faint lines show the placement of the hands. When the surface is examined with magnification, the underdrawing is visible in some areas. It appears to have been done with a dry material, such as charcoal or black chalk. Wavering underdrawn lines in the ring and middle fingers of the left hand and on the back of the right hand are intentionally visible through the paint, suggesting veins below the skin. They are characteristic of Cranach’s technique. [2013; adapted from German Paintings catalogue]
Julius Alexander Baumgärtner, Leipzig (before 1851; reportedly sold to a collector in Cologne); ?private collection, Colgne (after 1851); Graf Hans Wilczek, Kreutzenstein Castle, near Vienna (until 1907; sold to Kleinberger); [Kleinberger, Paris, 1907–8; sold to MMA]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "German Drawings: Masterpieces from Five Centuries," May 10–June 10, 1956, suppl. no. 197.
Christian Schuchardt. Lucas Cranach des Aeltern: Leben und Werke. Vol. 2, Leipzig, 1851, pp. 88–89, no. 340, lists a portrait of John, Duke of Saxony, son of George the Bearded, formerly in the collection of the Stadtraths Baumgärtner, and since sold in Cologne [probably our portrait, see Ref. Wehle and Salinger 1947].
R[oger]. E. F[ry]. "Portrait of a Man by Lucas Cranach the Elder." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 3 (May 1908), p. 88, ill. p. 87, notes that no clue has been found to identify the sitter; compares it to Cranach's portrait of Johann Frederich der Grossmuthige dated 1531 (Louvre, Paris) and assigns it to about the same period.
"German Paintings in the Museum." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 3 (December 1908), p. 234, list it as "An Electoral Duke of Saxony".
Monsieur Kleinberger. Letter. January 12, 1908, reports that Dr. Friedländer, Dr. Bode, M. Hulin de Gand, and M. Cardon de Bruxelles not only confirm that this painting is by Cranach the Elder, but consider it a masterpiece by him; notes that he bought it directly from count Hans Wilczek at his chateau in Kreutzenstein, near Vienna.
Roger E. Fry. Letter to H. W. Kent. January 25, 1908 [published in Ref. Sutton 1972, vol. 1, letter no. 238, p. 294].
"Complete List of Accessions: January 20, 1908 to February 20, 1908." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 3 (March 1908), p. 62, list this painting as a "Panel portrait of an Electoral Duke of Saxony".
Addenda to the Catalogue of Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, March–June 1908, n.p., list it as "An Electoral Duke of Saxony".
Bryson Burroughs. Catalogue of Paintings. 1st ed. New York, 1914, p. 52, as "Portrait of a Man (Probably an Electoral Duke of Saxony)".
Robert Allerton Parker. "The Revaluation of Lucas Cranach." International Studio 87 (June 1927), p. 17, ill. p. 24, calls it a probable portrait of the Duke of Saxony.
Max J. Friedländer and Jakob Rosenberg. Die Gemälde von Lucas Cranach. Berlin, 1932, p. 92, no. 341b, date this painting about 1537 and say it is more likely by Cranach the Younger; identify the sitter as John, Duke of Saxony, son of George the Bearded, on the basis of an inscription on a copy of this portrait by the Monogrammist JS [IS] (Schlossmuseum, Gotha).
Charles L. Kuhn. A Catalogue of German Paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance in American Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1936, pp. 42–43, no. 131, pl. 24, calls it "Portrait of a Duke of Saxony," noting that the sitter's identity has not been established, although the names of George the Bearded, Henry the Pious, and Johann of Saxony have been suggested; erroneously states that the painting is dated 1531 and signed with a dragon with wings erect.
Ernst Heinrich Zimmermann. "Ein Bildnisentwurf Lucas Cranachs d. J." Berliner Museen 63 (1942), p. 4, relates the style of it and another version to a drawing of Ernst the Confessor in the Musée des Beaux Arts, Reims; proposes that both versions were made after the death of John, duke of Saxony, as memorial portraits, and dates them about 1537.
Jakob Rosenberg. Letter to Margaretta M. Salinger. March 8, 1945, comments that identifications of the sitters in Cranach paintings, such as this one, based on copies in the Gotha collection, were "pretty conclusive, since the Gotha paintings obviously represent contemporary copies of Cranach portraits with authentic inscriptions of their names" [see Ref. Friedländer and Rosenberg 1932].
Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, p. 204, ill., call this a portrait of John, Duke of Saxony, based on Friedländer and Rosenberg's [Ref. 1932] identification; mention another version, without hands (formerly Goudstikker Galleries, Amsterdam; now Staatsgalerie Aschaffenburg) and a replica inscribed H. Hans [Herzog Hans or Johann] (formerly collection Archduke Ferdinand of the Tyrol; now Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna); list Baumgärtner, Leipzig, in the provenance, observing that Schuchardt's description [Ref. 1851] is so close to the MMA picture "that there can be little doubt it is the same one".
Julius S. Held. "Book Reviews: Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta M. Salinger . . ., 1947." Art Bulletin 31 (June 1949), p. 140.
Jakob Rosenberg. Die Zeichnungen Lucas Cranachs D. Ä. Berlin, 1960, p. 31.
Christian A. zu Salm and Gisela Goldberg inGalerie Aschaffenburg Katalog. Munich, 1964, p. 43, mention this painting in relation to a portrait of John, Duke of Saxony by Cranach the Younger (Galerie Aschaffenburg); erroneously repeat that the MMA painting is signed with a winged dragon and dated 1531 [see Ref. Kuhn 1936].
Denys Sutton, ed. Letters of Roger Fry. New York, 1972, vol. 1, p. 294 n. 2 to letter 238 (January 25, 1908).
Karl Schütz. Lucas Cranach der Ältere und seine Werkstatt: Jubiläumsausstellung museumseigener Werke, 1472–1972. Exh. cat., Kunsthistorisches Museum. Vienna, 1972, p. 54, under no. 78, mentions this painting in relation to the portrait of the same sitter in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Max J. Friedländer and Jakob Rosenberg. The Paintings of Lucas Cranach. rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y., 1978, p. 155, no. 424B.
John Pope-Hennessy. "Roger Fry and The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Oxford, China, and Italy: Writings in Honour of Sir Harold Acton on his Eightieth Birthday. Ed. Edward Chaney and Neil Ritchie. London, 1984, p. 233.
Introduction by James Snyder inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Renaissance in the North. New York, 1987, pp. 15, 111, colorpl. 77, notes that the portrait is dated about 1537, the year of the sitter's death.
Marie-Hélène Montout. Cranach l'Ancien et le Jeune. [Reims], 1994, p. 53, rejects the connection [see Ref. Zimmerman 1942] between our picture and Cranach's portrait drawing in Reims as unconvincing.
Maryan Ainsworth Joshua Waterman in Timothy B. Husband inGerman Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York and New Haven, 2013.
Joshua Waterman inGerman Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, pp. 69–72, 288–89, no. 15, ill. (color) and fig. 61 (x-radiograph).