Lucas Cranach (1472-1553)
The Three Graces, 1531
Oil on panel - 37 x 24.2 cm
Photo : Musée du Louvre
21/7/10 – Fundraising appeal – Paris, Musee du Louvre – After having been banned for export by a decree published in the Journal Officiel of 13 July 2009, a painting by Lucas Cranach representing The Three Graces was then listed as a national treasure (Journal Officiel of 23 July 2009). The Louvre would like to acquire this work and has therefore launched a fundraising drive.
Distinguishing the master’s hand from that of his assistants, and more particularly that of his son Lucas Cranach the Younger, is a difficult process given the very abundant production of the artist’s workshop. The very high quality of the Three Graces, visible even in a photographic reproduction, however makes it possible to attribute the painting with great certainty to Cranach himself. Such stylistic traits as the fine hair, the long narrow eyes and the rounded chins confirm this opinion. Also, the work is dated (1531) and bears the easily recognizable monogram  : a winged dragon holding a ring, the arms which he received from Frederick the Wise in 1508. The museum site tells us that the work is in excellent condition ; there are only a few cracks, since Cranach preferred to paint on wood. No information is available about the Three Graces before 1932, when it is first mentioned as being in the Seligmann collection in Paris.
There are already several important works by Cranach in various French public collections, notably Melancholy (signed and dated 1532, Colmar, Musee d’Unterlinden) and A Nymph at the Fountain (around 1537, Besancon, Musee des Beaux-Arts et d’Archelogie). The Louvre itself also owns an impressive assembly of paintings by the artist, essentially portraits (Frederick III the Wise) and mythological subjects (The Age of Money, Venus Standing in a Landscape). The Three Graces belongs to this second category, often developed by Cranach and his workshop starting in the late 1500’s , as the master was known for his erudition in antiquity. Several museums hold versions of Venus and Amor, The Judgement of Paris and Lucretia, themes treated with an ambiguous eroticism and liberty of form characteristic of Cranach. But in fact, until now only three panels illustrating the Three Graces and probably by the master are known to exist : the one in question here, a slightly later version  from the Sir Herbert Cook collection in Richmond (England) today at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City and the last one in the Law collection in Cambridge which is under debate by specialists some of whom think this is not a representation of the Three Graces but rather the three goddesses present at the Judgement of Paris. Although all three paintings show the figures against a dark background, they are very different in their stance and in the women’s accessories.
The three Graces was an important theme for humanists during the Renaissance, notably in Florentine Neo-Platonic circles as reflected by the medal of Pico de la Mirandola produced by Niccolo Fiorentino (British Museum) or also the Raphael painting at the Musee Conde in Chantilly. Both were inspired by the famous antique at the Libreria Piccolomini in the Sienna Duomo, constituting the triple incarnation of beauty, love and voluptuousness. While Cranach also attempts here a variation on these standards, he differs from his Italian contemporaries by still applying the Gothic canon (small and high bust, large pelvis, rounded stomach). Again distancing himself from the Italian vein, his Graces do not symbolize harmony, on the contrary ; the provocative look of the young women is a warning against the sin of lust, as are the other pagan nudes painted by the artist . Another very characteristic trait of Cranach is the way he integrates contemporary elements into an antique subject, such as thick necklaces and a large hat with feathers. Such accessories can be found in Venus and Amor (Brussels, Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts), painted the same year as The Three Graces.
Cranach will once again be in the spotlight soon on the French artistic scene as the Musee du Luxembourg in Paris will hold a monographic exhibition on the artist when it reopens its doors early in 2011 under new management by the RMN.