Like an enterprising Andy Warhol of the 16th century, German Renaissance master Lucas Cranach the Elder produced multiple paintings of the same subject, churning out strikingly similar versions of his trademark soft-edged nudes and angel-faced Madonnas.
This penchant for repetition did nothing for Cranach's reputation, and for centuries he was overshadowed by another giant of German art, Albrecht Durer.
A new exhibition at Paris' Musee du Luxembourg
aims to restore Cranach's image by highlighting his unique, velvety style and showing how the artist the official painter for the Saxon court of Wittenberg and a friend of reformer Martin Luther reacted to the tumult of his epoch.
Opening on Wednesday, "Cranach and his Times" includes 50 paintings and engravings of his perennial subjects, Adam and curvaceous Eve at the apple tree, Madonnas with chubby Christ children and even chubbier cherubs, reclining nymphs swathed in the sheerest of silks. With their rounded forms and soft, slightly fuzzy lines, Cranach's nudes exude the painter's signature mixture of chastity and carnal sensuousness.
"When you look at the paintings, you as a spectator are attracted to the beauty of the nudes ... but at the same time, you're being pushed away," the show's curator, Guido Messling, told The Associated Press in an interview. "This ambiguity plays an important role in Cranach's work."
The exhibition includes two of Cranach's best-known nudes, "Allegory of Justice," a 1537 work that features a bow-lipped blond brandishing a sword in one hand and a balance in the other, and "The Nymph of the Spring," on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., showing a young woman lounging in a verdant clearing beneath the admonition, in capital letters, "Do not disturb the rest of the nymph of the sacred spring: I am sleeping."
Other top work in the show include a self-portrait from 1531 of the dark-haired artist from Kronach in Bavaria, his white-flecked beard and melancholic amber eyes contrasting with the somber background, and several portraits of Martin Luther, the Protestant reformer who was among Cranach's friends.
Though he never painted exact reproductions of the same painting, he "was a businessman" who for commercial reasons often expedited several very similar works, Messling said. The Paris show includes a handful of portraits of ancient Rome's legendary Lucretia, as well as allegories of charity and other virtues.
The later paintings bear Cranach's coat of arms a winged snake though it's impossible to determine how many of the 1,000 paintings attributed to the him were executed by the master himself and how many were produced, Warhol-style, by his 15-strong workshop, Messling said.
Many of the paintings in the show are displayed alongside similar works by Cranach's contemporaries from Italy and Flanders, as well as the German maestro Durer. While it's clear Cranach heavily borrowed from these works, often mimicking the same composition, he and his atelier still gave their paintings their own signature touch.
"Even people who don't know the name Cranach ... do recognize his art," Messling said. "Cranach's one of the very few artists that really created a style that is still recognizable. You can put him next to Picasso in this regard."
In a sign of the growing appreciation for Cranach, the Louvre Museum recently paid euro4 million ($5 million) for his "Three Graces," featuring blond nudes wearing heavy gold chains round their necks, one sporting a red velvet saucer hat, Messling said. One quarter of the funds used for the purchase were raised through an unusual donation campaign that saw individuals and companies make gifts online.
The show runs through May 23.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.