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Kimbell Museum Acquires Cranach Masterpiece
Lucas Cranach the Elder, German (1472-1553), "The Judgment of Paris," c. 1512-14, oil on panel. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth .

FORT WORTH, TEXAS.- The Kimbell Art Museum announced today the acquisition of a highly important and exceptionally well-preserved painting by the great German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553)—the first of his several versions of "The Judgment of Paris." Dating from circa 1512–14, the work is an outstanding example of Cranach’s small oil-on-panel paintings of mythological subjects. It is exceedingly rare to find a painting of this age in such a pristine state.

The painting is well known to scholars, having been on loan to the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany, from 1968 to 1996. It greatly strengthens the Kimbell’s holdings of northern European Renaissance painting, and complements last year’s acquisition of one of the finest surviving German silver sculptures in the Late Gothic style, a Virgin and Child, 1486. As a German painting of a mythological subject featuring the female nude, this painting adds strength to the Kimbell’s collection in a number of areas.

Dr. Timothy Potts, director of the Kimbell Art Museum, commented: “Cranach was a close friend of Martin Luther, and the driving force behind the recasting of religious art in Reformation Germany. He was also a master of portraits and especially of mythological subjects, as this new acquisition vividly demonstrates. "The Judgment of Paris" brings a beautiful and engaging masterpiece into our collection, and I have no doubt it will be recognized as among the finest of the Kimbell’s Renaissance painting and sculpture.”

Along with Albrecht Dürer, Matthias Grünewald, and Hans Holbein, Cranach was one of the foremost artists of 16th-century Germany. He was both prolific and versatile, excelling in many genres and developing new subjects informed by the precepts of humanist and Reformation thought. His manner dominated the art of the region of Saxony for the entire century, and his influence, through both his paintings and his prints, reached throughout Germany, the Netherlands, and Eastern Europe. From 1505, Cranach worked in Wittenberg as the court artist to Frederick the Wise and his successors, the electors of Saxony. He established a large and productive workshop, which included his sons Hans and Lucas the Younger. One of the city’s wealthiest and most respected citizens, Cranach was a close friend of Martin Luther, the prime instigator of the Reformation, who taught at the University of Wittenberg. He created numerous painted portraits and prints of the Reformer, and they were godfathers to each other’s children.

The quality and condition of the painting are testimony to Cranach’s superb technique. The paint is handled with exquisite care, and has the rich colors and enamel-like surface that have become synonymous with Northern Renaissance oils. The masterful execution of details, such as the eyelashes of the horse and the minute figures in the background approaching the castle, is captivating in its fluid precision. Remarkably for a painting of this age, it has never suffered from overzealous cleaning, and all the glazes, modeling, and fine details are intact.

The tale of "The Judgment of Paris" is derived from Greek mythology. Angered because she was not invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the goddess Eris (Discord) tossed an apple labeled “to the fairest” among the banqueting Olympian gods. Jupiter sent the messenger-God Mercury to tell Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, to award the prize. The three goddesses who claimed the apple offered bribes. Juno offered wealth and power, Minerva offered military prowess, and Venus pledged the love of the most beautiful woman on earth. Paris’s choice of Venus, and his abduction of the most beautiful woman—Helen, wife of the Spartan King Menelaus—led to the Trojan War.

Cranach’s painting of this tale was influenced by accounts of the Trojan War in medieval narratives, particularly Guido delle Colonne’s Historia Destructionis (1287, German translation 1477). According to this source, Paris tethers his horse and falls into a deep sleep after losing his way in the groves of Ida during a hunting expedition. The god Mercury appears to him in his dream and presents the three goddesses, demanding that he select the fairest. Paris refuses to make his choice until they disrobe.

Cranach, who was the first northern artist to raise the subject of the Judgment of Paris to the dignity of panel painting, found pictorial precedents in prints, wall paintings, and other images in the minor arts. Various elements of the composition—the depiction of Paris as a knight in armor; the representation of the nude goddesses in frontal, rear, and side views; the inclusion of a fountain in a forest glade—can be found in these earlier sources. However, Cranach invests the subject with heightened pictorial and thematic interest. One of the most striking and original features of the work is the landscape setting. With such finely observed passages as the mossy tree-trunk anchoring the center, the misty mountainous vista at left, and the turreted castle crowning a rocky precipice in the right background, it is among the earliest works to express such a rich and exalted view of nature.

Paris, whose stunned expression denotes both his dream-state and the difficulty of his choice, wears a red robe over a full set of armor and an elaborate ostrich-plumed hat. The fantastic, long-bearded Mercury, depicted in the medieval tradition as a sage, is dressed in ornate golden armor, with a highly wrought winged helmet. He holds a crystal sphere encircled by a golden band inscribed with the letters “AMORT.X.N.” Recalling the imperial orb, this fragile globe suggests the momentousness of Paris’s decision for the fate of the ancient world. The ambiguous letters suggest both “amor” (love) and perhaps “mortalis” (subject to death), possibly alluding to Paris’s fatal choice that led to the destruction of Troy.

The lithe and slender goddesses—whose nudity is underscored by golden chains, fine hairnets, and diaphanous veils—are portrayed with Cranach’s distinctive mélange of innocence and sensuousness. The central goddess reflects the influence of the classicizing nudes of Dürer and Jacopo de’ Barbari, the Italian artist who preceded Cranach as Saxon court painter. The goddess at right demurely rubs her feet together as she turns toward the viewer, elegant curls framing her delicate features and blushed cheeks. At left, another beauty more aggressively makes her plea to Paris. Without attributes, the goddesses are—perhaps intentionally—difficult to identify individually and made to appear equally attractive.

Like other popular mythological and religious subjects painted by Cranach, the Judgment of Paris was often understood as depicting “Weibermacht,” or the power of women over men—where even strong or wise men, such as Hercules, Samson, or Aristotle, were subjugated by the beauty or wiles of women. Given the special popularity of the Judgment of Paris in Cranach’s cultural milieu, however, he may have had in mind more complex moralizing meaning. We know that the Judgment of Paris was thought to be a fitting subject for the instruction or flattery of princes. At the 1494 festive entrance of Philip the Fair into Antwerp, the myth was presented as a “tableau vivant” in which the nude goddesses appeared before the dreaming Paris and Mercury—an event witnessed by Frederick the Wise of Saxony. As a poetic conceit, various princely families, including the Hapsburgs and Wettins (the family of Frederick the Wise), traced their lineage to the Trojans.

The Judgment of Paris was also a popular theme in the scholastic, humanist circles that Cranach frequented, and current moralizing interpretations of the myth likely

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