The Nymph of the Spring

Lucas Cranach The Younger
1515 – 1586

The Nymph of the Spring

Painted circa 1540

Oil on panel: 22 13/16 x 31 3/16 inches, 57 x 78 cm

Provenance

  • Rudolf Oppenheim, Berlin, in 1925;
  • with Alfred Gold Gallery, Berlin;
  • from whom acquired by Philippe Cognacq in 1932;
  • thence by descent until
  • Audap-Mirabaud, Drouot, Paris, 7 November 2011, lot 7 (as ‘Lucas Cranach the Elder’, unsold);
  • acquired from the Estate of Philippe Cognacq, 2012.

Literature

  • M. J. Friedländer & J. Rosenberg, Die Gemälde von Lucas Cranach, 1932, no. 323, illus., (as ‘executed after 1537’).
  • M. J. Friedländer & J. Rosenberg, Les Peintures de Lucas Cranach, 1978, no. 402, illus., (as ‘executed after 1537’).
  • I. Lübbeke, The Thyssen-Bornemisza collection: Early German Painting (1350 – 1550), 1991, p. 208, fig. 3

Of all the subjects that emanated from the studio of Lucas Cranach the Elder and his son, it was the seductive female nude that most beguiled their wealthy noble patrons, be it Eve, Venus, Lucretia or a nymph such as this. Today their sensuality continues to fascinate, and they remain the most iconic and desirable of the Cranach oeuvre, representing the pinnacle of the duo’s painterly brilliance and innovation.

The design of this subject was first devised by Cranach the Elder and its obvious appeal to patrons saw its usage throughout the life of the Cranach studio, being recreated in differing versions at least a dozen times between c.1515 to c.1550. Indeed, Cranach the Elder was the first to paint mythological nudes north of the Alps.[1] Our version, with its beautifully preserved surface, is a particularly fine example and closely follows the very large scale variant by the Elder which is in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.

Dr. Dieter Koepplin has written that ‘I believe that the painting is painted in important parts by Lucas Cranach the Younger himself, or partly also as well by Lucas Cranach the Elder. It is impossible to distinguish reliably both hands in the works around 1540 – 50.’[2] There are passages of such finesse, notably the nymph’s head, that it is more than likely they are by the Elder himself. Father and son were active in the same studio together from 1537 until the death of the Elder in 1553.[3] Our painting, which Koepplin dates to the period 1540 – 1550, is a pivotal example of this fusion and confusion. Like the versions at Washington, Besançon and Oslo which date to the same time, it can confidently be considered as a collaborative work produced in the studio of Cranach the Elder and the Younger.

All versions present the nymph disrobed and stretched out in the grass, though each is subtly different. Ours is amongst the most arresting. The supple outline of the nymph is the culmination of years of working in the ‘bella maniera’, a style that arguably none since Dürer had achieved with such success. The symbolism of the work, presumably destined for a member of the court, or for a scholar, is complex, and several readings are possible:

The inclusion of the bow and arrows can be seen to represent the repose of Diana, goddess of the hunt, though it is only found in the later versions, such as ours. In Cranach’s drawing of the same subject, as here, he includes motifs of the hunt – deer, partridges, bow and arrows. More obliquely, they can be interpreted as the ‘pursuit of love’. Such details can also be found in an engraving with which Cranach would have been familiar, by Giovanni-Maria Pomedelli (Verona, c.1478 – 1537), inscribed ‘QVIES’ – supine after the hunt, his nymph calls for calm. Perhaps Cranach had also seen a lost painting by Giorgione: The Rest of Venus after the Hunt, which could likewise have inspired his use of these motifs.

The earlier examples of our subject, dated 1515 – 1520, show the nymph before a stone fountain, with no other attributes. This motif derived from a local tradition:[4] near to the Danube was a fountain guarded by a reclining carved stone nymph, with some engraved verses, well known at the time, by the humanist Giovanni Antonio Campani, active in the Vatican and at Florence around 1470:

Huius nympha loci, sacri custodia fontis

Dormio dum blandae sentior murmur acquae.

Parce meum quisquis tangis cava Marmora somnum

Rumpere: sive bibas, sive lavere taces.

(‘Nymph of this place, sacred guardian of the fountain,/ I sleep while the water babbles sweetly./ Beware of breaking my slumber as you approach the marble basin/ Either you drink or you bathe in silence’)

In our painting, the quatrain continues with an inscription: ‘Fontis nympha sacri/ somnum ne rumpe/ quiesco’ (‘Do not disturb (for) I, nymph of the sacred source, am at rest.’).

The artist plays on the ambiguity between the seductiveness of the nymph and the prohibition of the viewer from actually approaching her, as implied by the inscription – ‘Fontis nympha sacri/ somnum ne rumpe/ quiesco’. Naked, she is covered by a diaphanous gauze, which serves to emphasise her beauty. She appears to be looking at the pair of partridges at her feet, symbols of amorous courtship likewise found in contemporary depictions of Adam and Eve or of saints battling the temptation of the pleasures of the flesh.[5]

The bush to the left, half escaping the picture, as in the Besançon version, suggests the continuation of the Paridisal scene beyond what is actually presented. The verdant landscape, scattered with delicate partridges and deer, and at its heart, the crystaline spring, are an expressive interpretation of nature typical of the Cranach dynasty’s idealised aesthetic. Obliged to paint the hunts of the electors of Saxony, and to decorate their pavilions with scenes of the hunt, they had studied numerous drawings, engravings and paintings of deer.[6] Presented in profile, as here, the animals’ bodies are gently shaded from faun to white, and their faces are expressive. In our picture, one of the deer is drinking from the spring, in a world of quiet, natural pleasures. It is in this context that The Nymph of the Spring could perhaps most of all be read as an allegory of tranquillity, at a time when religious and political events were particularly turbulent.

Cranach the Elder was appointed to the court at Wittenberg in 1505 and for over fifty years was court painter to three successive electors: Frederick the Wise, John the Constant, and John Frederick the Magnanimous. In 1508, he was sent on a mission to paint Margaret of Austria, a trip that marked a turning point in his production. He discovered the works of northern Europe, and through them, those of Italy. When he returned to Germany, his source of inspiration had been completely renewed. He became a master of landscape, as well as of the female form, elaborating his canon of Venuses, which were enormously popular. Humanist themes were increasingly in demand as religious subjects declined, and it was in Wittenberg that Luther, who taught at the university, launched his reform. It was in this context that Cranach’s studio flourished, developing eruditely profane themes, often treated in the form of allegories. The Nymph of the Spring is a superb example. Its iconography cannot but be understood in relation to the humanist movement of the era.[7]

Other versions

1. Lucas Cranach the Elder, oil on panel, 59 x 92 cm., signed & dated 1518, (Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig)

2. Lucas Cranach the Elder, oil on panel, 58 x 87 cm., c. 1515 – 1520, (Jagdschloss Grünwald, Berlin Brandenburg)

3. Lucas Cranach the Elder, oil on panel, 77 x 121 cm., c. 1526 – 1530, (Thyssen-Bornemisza. Collection, Madrid)

4. Lucas Cranach the Elder, oil on panel, c. 1525 – 1527, (private collection)

5. Lucas Cranach the Elder, oil on panel, 50.8 x 76.2 cm., signed & dated 1534, (The Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool)

6. Lucas Cranach the Elder and Studio, oil on panel, 48 x 72.5 cm.,

(similar to our version), (Swiss Art market, 1963)

7. Lucas Cranach the Elder, oil on panel, 48 x 72.5 cm., signed with the insignia of the artist’s serpent, after 1537, (private collection, Switzerland – possibly the same picture that was on the Swiss art market in 1963)

8. Lucas Cranach the Elder & Studio, oil on panel, 48.5 x 74.2 cm., after 1537,

(Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archéologie, Besançon)

9. Lucas Cranach the Elder, oil on panel, signed with the artist’s serpent insignia, 48.5 x 72.9 cm., c. 1540 – 1550, (National Gallery of Art, Washington)

10. Lucas Cranach the Younger, oil on panel, 16 x 20 cm., after 1537, (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

11. Lucas Cranach the Younger, oil on panel, after 1537 (Gemäldegalerie, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Kassel)

 

[1] Cranach the Elder, Venus & Cupid, 1509. Notably, Giorgione painted a Sleeping Venus in Venice around 1508 – 1510.

[2] In a letter dated 15 September 2011.

[3] At this time Cranach the Elder headed a prestigious studio with his son in which he conceived compositions and participated in the execution of the paintings, much as Pieter Breughel the Younger would in his family studio one hundred years later.

[4] It was also reproduced in a drawing attributed to Dürer, executed in 1514.

[5] Cranach the Elder also used the motif of the nymph in his depiction of the Fountain of Youth (Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin).

[6] Cranach the Elder’s painting of a hunt with deer from 1530 can be seen in the Copenhagen Museum of Art.

[7] Cranach’s connection to Luther was evident through his portraits of the latter, which were widely disseminated, however, his patrons were as much Catholic as they were Protestant.

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