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Temptation in Eden - Courtauld Gallery (preview)

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

THE FIRST exhibition in England devoted to Lucas Cranach the Elder (c.1472 – 1553), Temptation in Eden: Lucas Cranach’s Adam and Eve, is on display at the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, Somerset House, until September 23, 2007.

The exhibition focuses on the greatest painting by Cranach in Britain – the Courtauld’s Adam and Eve which was painted in 1526 when the artist was at the height of his powers.

Eve’s temptation of Adam was a subject which was ideally suited to Cranach’s outstanding gifts as a portrayer of landscape, animals and the female nude, and to which neither Protestant nor Catholic theologians could object. Over fifty depictions of this subject survive by Cranach and his workshop, and the Courtauld’s Adam and Eve is arguably the most beautiful, beguiling and inventive.

Cranach was one of the greatest artists of Renaissance Germany. Probably born in 1472 (the exact date is unknown), he worked in Vienna before becoming Court Painter to Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony in 1505.

He subsequently spent the greater part of his career in Wittenberg in the service of the Elector and his successors, although his reputation also brought him exceptional success further afield. On his death in 1553, his family were among the wealthiest and most important of Wittenberg’s citizens. They were also at the centre of the new reformed religion which was being established both in Saxony and across Europe.

Cranach was a friend of the erstwhile monk and Protestant theologian Martin Luther (1483-1546), each standing as godfather to the other’s children. Cranach shared Luther’s devotion to the reformation of the Western Church and Christianity, and put his great talents as a graphic artist and printmaker at the service of the Lutheran cause.

When Luther required an artist to illustrate the first edition of the New Testament in German it was to his friend Cranach that he turned. However, Cranach’s personal Lutheran sympathies did not prevent him from working for Catholics. He numbered Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg, one of Luther’s greatest foes, among his patrons.

Cranach was an astonishingly versatile and innovative artist, active as a painter, draughtsman, printmaker and entrepreneur. His prosperity relied heavily on the talents of his two sons – Hans (1513-37) and Lucas the Younger (1515-86) – as well as many students, assistants and temporary associates.

Rather than diminishing with success, Cranach’s inventiveness as a pictorial story-teller continued to develop, and was arguably at its height in the late 1520s and early 1530s. He developed original ways of depicting both new narratives, including those of Luther and humanist scholars active at Wittenberg University, as well as enriching established subjects. An examination of this period, and these qualities of Cranach’s work, is at the centre of the exhibition.

Adam and Eve brilliantly combines devotional meaning with pictorial elegance and invention. The scene is set in a forest clearing where Eve stands before the Tree of Knowledge, caught in the act of handing an apple to a bewildered Adam. Entwined in the tree’s branches above, the serpent looks on as Adam succumbs to temptation. A rich menagerie of birds and animals completes this seductive vision of Paradise in the moments before Man’s Fall.

The painting is particularly admired for its treatment of the human figure and for the profusion of finely painted details, including animals and vegetation. The composition is influenced by Cranach’s own earlier woodcut of Adam and Eve (1509), and Dürer’s celebrated engraving of the same subject (1504).

However, it is much less portentous, for here Cranach delights in capturing details of natural beauty such as the innocence of the assembled animals, including the roe-buck catching its reflection in the foreground pool of water.

Cranach’s painting simultaneously provides visual delight and religious instruction. It also offers close comparisons with an important group of paintings which, like Adam and Eve, express the themes of temptation and beauty, and were made on a domestic scale between 1526 and 1530.

Indeed, so evident are their shared interests in animals and nudes in landscape settings, as well as their linked subject matters, that some scholars have suggested they were commissioned by a single patron and were intended to be displayed together.

These paintings – the Courtauld’s Adam and Eve, the Royal Collection’s Apollo and Diana, the National Gallery’s Cupid Complaining to Venus, and the J. Paul Getty Museum’s A Faun and his Family – are shown together in the exhibition for the first time in several hundred years.

A number of exquisite animal studies – drawn from both living and dead specimens – are also on display to show the complex processes which went into transforming these real beasts into their idealised representation in the Courtauld’s Adam and Eve.

These drawings, together with fine engravings and woodcuts, offer a unique opportunity to enjoy Cranach’s remarkable powers of observation and story-telling as well as his outstanding skills as a graphic artist, qualities that also characterise his paintings and are responsible for his enduring fame.

A further section of the exhibition explores how Cranach created his iconic image of Adam and Eve. Drawing on research carried out in the Courtauld’s Department of Conservation and Technology, the exhibition demonstrates how the painting was made, revealing changes and refinements introduced by the artist during its execution.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, with contributions by Dr Stephanie Buck, Curator of Drawings, and Dr Caroline Campbell, Curator of Paintings, both of the Courtauld Institute of Art; Dr Susan Foister, Director of Collections and Curator of Early Netherlandish, German and British Painting at The National Gallery, London; and Dr Gunnar Heydenreich, Head of Paintings Conservation at the Restaurierungszentrum Düsseldorf, Germany.