The goddess Venus and her son Cupid stand beside a tree at the edge of a leafy thicket. Wearing golden neck jewelry and a large red hat over a gold-embroidered snood, Venus gazes out toward the viewer. She holds a diaphanous veil across her hips. Cupid, who carries a honeycomb taken from a hive in the tree trunk, is attacked by a swarm of bees and cries out to his mother in distress.
Lucas Cranach the Elder began painting depictions of Venus with Cupid taking honey from a beehive in the mid-1520s. To judge from the numerous surviving variants, the theme was one of the most successful products of that artist’s workshop. The subject is based ultimately on the nineteenth idyll of Theocritus, which tells of Cupid being stung by bees, whose hive he raided in search of honey, and then complaining to Venus of the great pain inflicted by such small creatures. Venus, amused, likened Cupid to the bees, remarking that he, too, is small and, as the god of love, also a bringer of great pain. The Latin quatrain that appears in Cranach’s paintings is an adaptation of Theocritus’s verses by the poet Georg Sabinus. During the 1520s — concurrent with the appearance of this subject in Cranach’s oeuvre — Sabinus studied ancient Greek literature at the University of Wittenberg under Philipp Melanchthon. It is thought that Melanchthon, as a friend of Cranach, may have brought Sabinus’s verses to the artist’s attention and advised him on the subject matter.
While the first half of Sabinus’s quatrain summarizes the narrative passed down from Theocritus, “As Cupid was stealing honey from the hive, / a bee stung the thief on the finger,” the second half delivers a forthright admonition: “And so do we seek transitory and dangerous pleasures, / that are mixed with sadness and bring us pain.” The warning clearly concerns the sexual and, more broadly worldly temptations embodied by the nude figure of Venus, who in many versions of the subject allures the viewer with a direct gaze, making those pictures at once visually seductive and morally deterrent. The subject represents an adaptation of the moralizing theme introduced in Cranach’s first Venus and Cupid painting, the 1509 picture now in the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, in which the goddess subdues her son, who is in the process of drawing his bow, and an inscription warns the viewer to “Avoid Cupid’s lust with all your might, that your breast not be possessed by Venus.”
Although in the 1998 catalogue of the Lehman Collection in the Metropolitan Museum the present work was attributed to Cranach and his workshop and dated 1530 according to the inscription on the tree trunk, closer technical scrutiny has shown that it is in fact an old copy after a lost original, as had alreadybeen proposed in the 1970s. Dendrochronological analysis of the oak support, which is original to the work, indicated an earliest possible fabrication date of 1570 and a plausible one of 1580 or later for the painting. In addition, the technique used to depict the flesh is unlike that normally encountered in works of the Cranach studio, either under Lucas the Elder (d. 1553) or his son Lucas Cranach the Younger (d. 1586). Whereas in Cranach paintings the flesh is usually built up with thin translucent glazes of grays, browns, pinks, and whites over a light base flesh tone (with greater emphasis on pink and red glazes in the second half of the century under Lucas the Younger), in the Museum’s picture the flesh modeling is uncharacteristically thick, pasty, and opaque, relying heavily on a palette of mixed browns. Furthermore, the application of paint throughout the present work is broader and more summary than the precise execution characteristic of Cranach and his workshop. This is immediately apparent, for example, in Cupid’s ear and right hand, Venus’s face, and the hastily sketched-in city at the right. Comparison with a fine autograph version of the subject, such as the example dated 1529 in a private collection, clearly demonstrates the considerable distance of the Museum’s painting from Cranach’s handling and execution.
A nearly identical version of the composition, formerly in the Björnstjerna Collection, Stockholm, is likewise marked with the winged serpent insignia and a date of 1530, but also shows evidence of having been painted considerably later. Koepplin suspected it, too, of being an old copy after a lost original. It exhibits a similarly summary handling of the anatomical details, the foliage, and the background landscape and buildings. The diaphanous shift that has been added to Venus is of a type frequently encountered in the decades around 1600. Like the Museum’s picture, the ex-Björnstjerna version is on oak, with the wood grain running horizontally, counter to the longer dimension. This is an uncommon feature, since a panel’s grain is normally oriented parallel to the longer dimension. Dendrochronological analysis of the panel of that picture indicated a felling date between 1607 and 1637 for the tree from which it was made. The similar paint handling and the two instances of oak with an atypical grain orientation raise the possibility that the Museum’s and the ex-Björnstjerna versions were painted by the same hand — the same copyist working from a lost original — sometime after 1607. The somewhat earlier dendrochronological dating of the Metropolitan’s panel, which establishes only a terminus post quem, does not exclude the possibility.
An enduring interest in the present composition is furthermore documented by the existence of yet another copy, probably of the later seventeenth or eighteenth century, whose current location is unknown. In addition, in 1957 Pablo Picasso made a gouache painting after a magazine illustration of the Lehman panel.
[2016; adapted from Waterman 2013]
Inscription: Signed and dated: (by copyist, at left, on tree trunk) [Cranach’s winged serpent mark, wings raised] 1530 Inscriptions (in text field, at upper left): dvm pver alveolo fvratvr mella cvpido, / fvranti digitvm sedvla pvnxit apis. / sic etiam nobis brevis et moritvra volvptas / qvam petimvs tristi mixta dolore nocet (As Cupid was stealing honey from the hive / A bee stung the thief on the finger / And so do we seek transitory and dangerous pleasures / T hat are mixed with sadness and bring us pain) Heraldry / emblems: none Marks on verso: on label, in Cyrillic, ts. f. t[. . .]z / ***; in round stamp [. . .] kunst / 24.vii.28
Z. M. Hackenbroch, Frankfurt, 1928; Mrs. A. E. Goodhart, from whom acquired by Robert Lehman