Lucas Cranach probably painted more naked women than any other artist in history. But he only ever had one ideal figure in mind: the true Renaissance woman. By Andrew Graham-Dixon
Lucas Cranach the Elder, artist by appointment to the court of Frederick the Wise of Wittenberg, probably painted more pictures of naked women than any other man in history. His Venus Restraining Cupid of 1509 is generally reckoned to be the first full-frontal nude depiction of a classical goddess in German art, and its success encouraged Cranach to spend much of the rest of his long life furnishing the aristocrats of 16th-century Saxony with mild and charming erotica. He became Northern Europe's chief specialist supplier of nubile, mythologically inspired painted ladies - perfectly calculated, it seems, to charm bored courtiers living in a cold climate. His art made him rich, and when he died, he was the most celebrated painter in all of Germany.
Cranach's imaginary harem survives more or less intact, albeit much dispersed and somewhat altered by conditions of modern museum display. The majority of his slender and doe-eyed temptresses were originally devised for the delectation of a single owner in a private room. Now they proposition the general public. Several of them may be found doing just that in the modest exhibition of a dozen or so Cranachs currently at the National Gallery in London.
To borrow a phrase from the great art historian Erwin Panofsky, Cranach was "the very model of a major minor master". He was no pioneer. His Italian contemporaries, Titian and Giorgione, preceded him in depictions of the naked Venus (the issue of precedence apart, Cranach never did paint a picture to rival Giorgione's Sleeping Venus in Dresden or Titian's Venus of Urbino in the Uffizi). But he was certainly...