Cranach often treated the theme of Venus and Cupid, but this excellently preserved panel is the only version in a round format. Playing coquettishly with her veil and glancing at the viewer, Venus ignores Cupid, who is agitated by the situation. His arrow is missing, suggesting that he has been disarmed and is powerless against his mother. The picture was likely intended for display in a personal studiolo. Cranach might have painted the roundel not on commission but on speculation, to be sold to discerning collectors already conditioned by the tradition of medals and plaquettes to appreciate such refined work.
Cranach first treated the theme of Venus and Cupid in 1509, both in a woodcut showing the figures in a landscape setting, and in a life-size painting (State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg) in which the figures are shown against a black background. By about 1525–27, he had painted several other panels of this subject (examples are now in the Niedersächsisches Landesmuseum, Hannover, inv. no. PAM 1031; the Princeton University Art Museum, inv. no. 68-111; and the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, inv. no. 259). These repeat the basic compositional model established in the St. Petersburg picture of figures standing on a patch of earth. However, in typical fashion, in each picture Cranach introduces variations in the poses of the figures. The MMA roundel and a Venus and Cupid at Compton Verney (Warwickshire, England) contain the two earliest examples of the motif of Cupid on a stone plinth—a compositional necessity that, in the roundel, allows Cupid to be placed at the far left instead of on a sliver of ground.
In the 1509 woodcut and the St. Petersburg picture, Venus subdues Cupid with her outstretched arm—an allusion to carnal longing restrained. In most later pictures, including the MMA work, Venus ignores Cupid, which effectively disarms the theme of its earlier pointed moralizing content. In the MMA roundel Venus neglects Cupid, who is apparently agitated by the situation. His arrow is missing, suggesting that he has been disarmed and underscoring his powerlessness against his mother. Unlike Cranach’s treatments of the subject of 1509, this work does not admonish the viewer about the dangers of earthly love. Rather, in a lighthearted manner, it offers up for the viewer’s delectation Venus’s aloof disregard and Cupid’s idle frenzy. Only with the creation in about 1526 of the sub-theme of Cupid stung by bees after removing a honeycomb from a tree trunk, did a strong moralizing element return (see MMA 1975.1.135).
In the years 1525 to about 1527 Cranach painted a number of small roundels that are among the earliest German panel paintings to employ a format reminiscent of medals and plaquettes. Coming initially from Italy, medals had been collected by princes and prominent burghers in Germany since the late fifteenth century, and the explosion in the availability of and demand for them presumably spurred Cranach’s production of painted roundels in the mid-1520s. However, a clear medallic source for this panel is lacking. All of the roundels measure between 10 to 15 cm in diameter. Six, including this work, depict various biblical, historical, and mythological subjects; the rest are portraits. With two exceptions, those roundels that are dated are inscribed with the year 1525, the exceptions being inscribed 1526 and, possibly, 1527. The undated examples, including the MMA panel, are stylistically consistent with the dated roundels and with Cranach’s works of the mid-1520s in general. The small, closely related composition at Compton Verney bears the date 1525, adding further support for placing the MMA rondel roundel then or shortly thereafter.
The exquisite brushwork of the MMA Venus and Cupid, which is in an excellent state of preservation, leaves little doubt it is by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The thin glazes of the flesh tones have been applied with utmost efficiency, and the minute details betray a confident hand. The slight roughness of the contours, where the black background adjoins the figures, likely resulted from the apparent speed with which the picture was painted. The picture was likely intended for display in a personal studiolo or Kunstkammer. It is possible that Cranach painted it and the other five subject roundels in a single batch—not on commission but on speculation, to be sold to discerning collectors already conditioned by the tradition of medals and plaquettes to appreciate such small, refined works.
[2012; adapted from Waterman 2013]
The grain of the circular beech panel is oriented vertically. A small indentation at the center of the panel indicates that a stylus was used to create the circle. The panel has been thinned to .4 centimeters and laminated to a linden support; the laminated panels display a convex curvature. The verso and sides have been waxed. The white ground extends to all edges. The unpainted border has been deeply scored. One mark extends into the painted background, confirming that the scoring was done after the painting was completed. There is a vertical split in the panel extending from the bottom edge, below the right foot of Venus to her knee. Overall the condition of the painting is very good. When it is viewed in normal light, a few dark lines can be seen below the surface of the paint in Venus’s feet; however, examination with infrared reflectography revealed no underdrawing.
See Additional Images (fig. 1) for x-radiograph. [2013; adapted from German Paintings catalogue]
Inscription: Signed (lower left, on stone) with winged serpent
private collection (until 1965; sale, Sotheby's, London, March 24, 1965, no. 100, for £16,000 to Linsky); Mr. and Mrs. Jack Linsky, New York (1965–his d. 1980); The Jack and Belle Linsky Foundation, New York (1980–82)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Philippe de Montebello Years: Curators Celebrate Three Decades of Acquisitions," October 24, 2008–February 1, 2009, online catalogue.
THIS WORK MAY NOT BE LENT, BY TERMS OF ITS ACQUISITION BY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART.
Frank Davis. "Talking about Sale-Rooms: Handsome Pistol, Haunting Crucifix." Country Life 137 (April 15, 1965), p. 872, fig. 4.
"Works of Art in Passage: A Commentary and Review." Connoisseur Year Book (1966), p. 4, fig. 3.
Dieter Koepplin and Tilman Falk. Lukas Cranach: Gemälde, Zeichnungen, Druckgraphik. Exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Basel. Vol. 1, Basel, 1974, pp. 278, 280, 297, fig. 148, Koepplin illustrates this panel with five other subject roundels as by Lucas Cranach the Elder, but observes in the text that their authenticity has yet to be examined; dates them between 1525 and 1527 and comments on their generally modest quality; believes that Cranach made a great many works of this type and that they were quickly produced, probably serving as gifts.
Dieter Koepplin and Tilman Falk. Lukas Cranach: Gemälde, Zeichnungen, Druckgraphik. Exh. cat., Kunstmuseum Basel. Vol. 2, Basel, 1976, p. 642, under no. 554, p. 654, under no. 566, p. 776 n. 78, Koepplin mentions it under the catalogue entry for a round bronze plaquette (Historisches Museum, Basel; 1905.5162) of Venus and Cupid ascribed to Moderno, active in Northern Italy about 1500, suggesting that Italian bronze plaquettes may have provided the stimulus for the MMA picture.
Max J. Friedländer and Jakob Rosenberg. The Paintings of Lucas Cranach. rev. ed. Ithaca, N.Y., 1978, p. 119, no. 249, ill., attribute it to Lucas Cranach the Elder and date it about 1530.
Mary Sprinson de Jesús in "The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Addenda to the Catalogue." Metropolitan Museum Journal 21 (1986), pp. 159–61, no. A.2, ill., observes that both the conception and technique argue in favor of an attribution to Cranach the Elder.
Élie Faure et al. Lukas Cranach: "le corps divinisé," le début du maniérisme, 1472–1553. Paris, 1993, p. 95, ill. p. 85, dates it about 1525, along with the other five subject roundels illustrated in Ref. Koepplin and Falk 1974.
Charles Talbot inThe Robert Lehman Collection. Vol. 2, Fifteenth- to Eighteenth-Century European Paintings. New York, 1998, p. 52, attributes it to Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Karen E. Thomas inGerman Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, p. 13.
Joshua Waterman inGerman Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1350–1600. New Haven, 2013, pp. 51–53, 72, 285–86, no 10, ill. (color) and fig. 46 (x-radiograph).