It has not been possible to trace his descent or the name of his parents. His name of birth is differently known as Sünder, Sunder or Sonder. Some mention a Hans Maler and wife ... Hübner, who died in 1491. Later, he took the name of his birth-place as his surname. We do not know how Cranach was trained, but it was probably with local south German masters, as with his contemporary Matthias Grünewald, who worked at Bamberg and Aschaffenburg. Bamberg is the capital of the diocese in which Kronach lies.
According to Gunderam (the tutor of Cranach's children) Cranach demonstrated his talents as a painter before the close of the 15th century. His work then drew the attention of the Elector of Saxony, who attached Cranach to his person in 1504. The records of Wittenberg confirm Gunderam's statement to this extent that Cranach's name appears for the first time in the public accounts on the 24 June 1504, when he drew 50 gulden for the salary of half a year, as pictor ducalis.
The only clue to Cranach's settlement previous to his Wittenberg appointment is afforded by the knowledge that he owned a house at Gotha, and that Barbara Brengbier, his wife, was the daughter of a burgher of that city and also born there, having died at Wittenberg on 26 December 1540.
The first evidence of his skill as an artist comes in a picture dated 1504. We find him active in several branches of his profession, sometimes a house-painter, more frequently producing portraits and altar-pieces, a designer on wood, an engraver of copper-plates, and draughtsman for the dies of the electoral mint.
Early in the days of his official employment he startled his master's courtiers by the realism with which he painted still life, game and antlers on the walls of the country palaces at Coburg and Locha; his pictures of deer and wild boar were considered striking, and the duke fostered his passion for this form of art by taking him out to the hunting field, where he sketched "his grace" running the stag, or Duke John sticking a boar.
Before 1508 he had painted several altar-pieces for the Castle Church at Wittenberg in competition with Albrecht Dürer, Hans Burgkmair and others; the duke and his brother John were portrayed in various attitudes and a number of the best woodcuts and copper-plates were published.
Great honour accrued to Cranach when he went in 1509 to the Netherlands, and took sittings from the Emperor Maximilian and the boy who afterwards became Charles V. Until 1508 Cranach signed his works with the initials of his name. In that year the elector gave him the winged snake as a motto, and this motto, or Kleinod, as it was called, superseded the initials on all his pictures after that date.
Somewhat later the duke conferred on him the monopoly of the sale of medicines at Wittenberg, and a printer's patent with exclusive privileges as to copyright in Bibles. Cranach's presses were used by Martin Luther. His chemist's shop was open for centuries, and only perished by fire in 1871.
Friendship united the painter with the Protestant Reformers at a very early period; yet it is difficult to fix the time of his first acquaintance with Luther. The oldest reference to Cranach in the Reformer's correspondence dates from 1520. In a letter written from Worms in 1521, Luther calls him his gossip, warmly alluding to his "Gevatterin," the artist's wife. His first engraved portrait by Cranach represents an Augustinian friar, and is dated 1520. Five years later the friar dropped the cowl, and Cranach was present as "one of the council" at the betrothal festival of Luther and Katharina von Bora, and later as godfather to their first child (Johannes, or Hans, born 1526).
The death at short intervals of the electors Frederick and John (1525 and 1532) brought no change in the prosperous situation of the painter; he remained a favourite with John Frederick I, under whose administration he twice (1531 and 1540) filled the office of burgomaster of Wittenberg. But 1547 witnessed a remarkable change in these relations.
John Frederick was taken prisoner at the Battle of Mühlberg, and Wittenberg was subjected to the stress of siege. As Cranach wrote from his house at the corner of the marketplace to the grand-master Albert of Brandenburg at Königsberg to tell him of John Frederick's capture, he showed his attachment by saying,
"I cannot conceal from your Grace that we have been robbed of our dear prince, who from his youth upwards has been a true prince to us, but God will help him out of prison, for the Kaiser is bold enough to revive the Papacy, which God will certainly not allow."During the siege Charles bethought him of Cranach, whom he remembered from his childhood and summoned him to his camp at Pistritz. Cranach came, reminded his majesty of his early sittings as a boy, and begged on his knees for kind treatment to the elector.
Three years afterwards, when all the dignitaries of the Empire met at Augsburg to receive commands from the emperor, and Titian came at Charles's bidding to paint Philip of Spain, John Frederick asked Cranach to visit the Swabian capital; and here for a few months he was numbered amongst the household of the captive elector, whom he afterwards accompanied home in 1552.
The oldest extant picture by Cranach, the "Rest of the Virgin during the Flight into Egypt," marked with the initials L.C., and the date of 1504, is by far the most graceful creation of his pencil. The scene is laid on the margin of a forest of pines, and discloses the habits of a painter familiar with the mountain scenery of Thuringia. There is more of gloom in landscapes of a later time.
Cranach's art in its prime was doubtless influenced by causes which but slightly affected the art of the Italians, but weighed with potent consequence on that of the Netherlands and Germany. The business of booksellers who sold woodcuts and engravings at fairs and markets in Germany naturally satisfied a craving which arose out of the paucity of wall paintings in churches and secular edifices. Drawing for woodcuts and engraving of copperplates became the occupation of artists of note, and the talents devoted in Italy to productions of the brush were here monopolized for designs on wood or on copper.
We have thus to account for the comparative unproductiveness as painters of Dürer and Holbein, and at the same time to explain the shallowness apparent in many of the later works of Cranach; but we attribute to the same cause also the tendency in Cranach to neglect effective colour and light and shade for strong contrasts of flat tint.
Constant attention to contour and to black and white appears to have affected his sight, and caused those curious transitions of pallid light into inky grey which often characterize his studies of flesh; whilst outlining of form in black became a natural substitute for modelling and chiaroscuro. There are, no doubt, some few pictures by Cranach in which the flesh-tints display brightness and enamelled surface, but they are quite exceptional.
As a composer Cranach was not greatly gifted. His ideal of the human shape was low; but he showed some freshness in the delineation of incident, though he not unfrequently bordered on coarseness. His copper-plates and woodcuts are certainly the best outcome of his art; and the earlier they are in date the more conspicuous is their power. Striking evidence of this is the "St Christopher" of 1506, or the plate of "Elector Frederick praying before the Madonna" (1509).
It is curious to watch the changes which mark the development of his instincts as an artist during the struggles of the Reformation. At first we find him painting Madonnas. His first woodcut (1505) represents the Virgin and three saints in prayer before a crucifix. Later on he composes the marriage of St Catherine, a series of martyrdoms, and scenes from the Passion.
After 1517 he illustrates occasionally the old Gospel themes, but he also gives expression to some of the thoughts of the Reformers. In a picture of 1518 at Leipzig, where a dying man offers "his soul to God, his body to earth, and his worldly goods to his relations," the soul rises to meet the Trinity in heaven, and salvation is clearly shown to depend on faith and not on good works.
Again sin and grace become a familiar subject of pictorial delineation. Adam is observed sitting between John the Baptist and a prophet at the foot of a tree. To the left God produces the tables of the law, Adam and Eve partake of the forbidden fruit, the brazen serpent is reared aloft, and punishment supervenes in the shape of death and the realm of Satan. To the right, the Conception, Crucifixion and Resurrection symbolize redemption, and this is duly impressed on Adam by John the Baptist, who points to the sacrifice of the crucified Saviour. There are two examples of this composition in the galleries of Gotha and Prague, both of them dated 1529.
One of the latest pictures with which the name of Cranach is connected is the altarpiece which Cranach's son completed in 1555, and which is now (1911) in the Stadtkirche (city church) at Weimar. It represents Christ in two forms, to the left trampling on Death and Satan, to the right crucified, with blood flowing from the lance wound. John the Baptist points to the suffering Christ, whilst the blood-stream falls on the head of Cranach, and Luther reads from his book the words, "The blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin."
Cranach sometimes composed Gospel subjects with feeling and dignity. "The Woman taken in Adultery" at Munich is a favourable specimen of his skill, and various repetitions of Christ receiving little children show the kindliness of his disposition.
But he was not exclusively a religious painter. He was equally successful, and often comically naïve, in mythological scenes, as where Cupid, who has stolen a honeycomb, complains to Venus that he has been stung by a bee (Weimar, 1530; Berlin, 1534), or where Hercules sits at the spinning-wheel mocked by Omphale and her maids.
Humour and pathos are combined at times with strong effect in pictures such as the "Jealousy" (Augsburg, 1527; Vienna, 1530), where women and children are huddled into telling groups as they watch the strife of men wildly fighting around them.
Very realistic must have been a lost canvas of 1545, in which hares were catching and roasting sportsmen. In 1546, possibly under Italian influence, Cranach composed the "Fons Juventutis" ("Fountain of Youth") of the Berlin Gallery, executed by his son, a picture in which hags are seen entering a Renaissance fountain, and are received as they issue from it with all the charms of youth by knights and pages.
Cranach's chief occupation was that of portrait painting, and we are indebted to him chiefly for the preservation of the features of all the German Reformers and their princely adherents. He painted not only Martin Luther himself but also Luther's wife, mother and father (see gallery below). But he sometimes condescended to depict such noted followers of the papacy as Albert of Brandenburg, archbishop elector of Mainz, Anthony Granvelle and the Duke of Alva.
A dozen likenesses of Frederick III and his brother John are found to bear the date of 1532. It is characteristic of Cranach's readiness, and a proof that he possessed ample material for mechanical reproduction, that he received payment at Wittenberg in 1533 for "sixty pairs of portraits of the elector and his brother" in one day. Amongst existing likenesses we should notice as the best that of Albert, elector of Mainz, in the Berlin Museum, and that of John, elector of Saxony, at Dresden.
Cranach died at Weimar and had three sons, all artists: John Lucas Cranach, who died at Bologna in 1536; Hans Cranach, whose life is obscure; and Lucas, born in 1515, who died in 1586. He also had a daughter, Barbara Cranach, who died in 1569, married to Christian Brück (Pontanus), ancestors of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.