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
. 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]