Lucas Cranach the Elder

Portrait of a Lady, c. 1540
Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal
19.10.2016 – 15.01.2017

The oeuvre of German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553) consists mainly of portraits. It is, in fact, chiefly thanks to his work that we have depictions of German Reformers such as Martin Luther and his wife, along with their princely adherents.

Lucas Cranach’s Portrait of a Lady, however, seems to hide something, as it has been overpainted. The figure’s right arm and hand were supposedly added in the 1930s to conceal a large plate bearing the head of either Holofernes or John the Baptist. The painting is, therefore, not a mere portrait: it is assumed to be a representation of either Salome or Judith. The model for the figure was likely Sidonia of Saxony, who appears in numerous works by Cranach. Legend has it that because 20th-century art dealers were unable to sell a painting depicting a severed male head on a plate, a restorer painted flowers to dissimulate the head. The flowers were then later erased with the use of acetone. In the 1970s, the painting was sent to the Canadian Conservation Institute, where X-ray photographs showed that only the right arm was overpainted, and mystery persists around the severed head, which never appeared.

Portrait of a Lady is in the collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery.