Nazi-looted Cranach artworks to remain in California museum

A US museum has won a legal dispute over the ownership of two Renaissance masterpieces that were looted by the Nazis. The life-size paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder were once in the possession of Hermann Göring.

A US appeals court has awarded a museum in California the right to keep two 16th century paintings by German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder that were stolen by the Nazis during World War II.

According to court documents, the life-size panels depicting Adam and Eve belonged to Jewish art dealer Jacques Goudstikker. After he fled the Netherlands in 1940, the paintings were taken by Nazi Reich Marshall Hermann Göring in a forced sale.

Read moreReunited in Moscow, Cranach paintings tell tale of Soviet-looted art

The Warhol of the Renaissance: Lucas Cranach, the Elder

Serving the Reformation

Working during the Renaissance, Lucas Cranach, the Elder, spread the ideas of the Reformation across Germany. In his many portraits of Martin Luther, he created the image of a modest man who achieved significance for his beliefs. The portraits quickly spread, shaping the public image of the reformer. Cranach and Luther met in Wittenberg, where Cranach worked as a painter at Frederick III's court.

The Warhol of the Renaissance: Lucas Cranach, the Elder

Luther's public image

In 1521, Elector Frederick the Wise ordered Luther to come to the Wartburg castle in the vicinity of Eisenach in an attempt to protect him from attacks. Disguised as the squire Jörg, he grew a beard. In hiding, Luther translated the New Testament into German. Witnessing the different phases of the project, Cranach helped shape Luther's public image.

The Warhol of the Renaissance: Lucas Cranach, the Elder

Paradise lost

The fall of man in paradise: Adam and Eve are depicted standing naked in the Garden of Eden. Cranach painted the moment in which Adam was seduced by a snake winding down from a tree in an attempt to persuade Eve to pass on the apple of knowledge to Adam. The painting dates back to 1531.

The Warhol of the Renaissance: Lucas Cranach, the Elder

An unequal couple

Is he ridiculing her? Is he trying to instruct her? Lucas Cranach, the Elder, loved to portray unequal couples. At times, a youthful beauty is caressing the beard of an old geezer, or a toothless aged woman is smiling at her young lover. Some of Cranach's humorous, or even cynical, paintings resemble a farce.

The Warhol of the Renaissance: Lucas Cranach, the Elder

The power of women

In addition to portraits, Cranach also produced numerous nudes that were in high demand, making him rich and famous. There's Venus with or without Amor, a disgraced and suicidal Lucretia, nude nymphs cuddling up to muscular gigolos in fountains, and naive visions of women trying to assuage angry hunters.

The Warhol of the Renaissance: Lucas Cranach, the Elder

The discovery of mankind

In an attempt to display people as they really were, Lucas Cranach, the Elder, distanced himself from idealized templates as propagated in church paintings. He scrutinized his models very thoroughly in order to depict their characteristics. The artist portrayed scholars and bourgeois women alike.

The Warhol of the Renaissance: Lucas Cranach, the Elder

A Cranach or a copy?

As Lucas Cranach produced entire series of his chosen subjects, he created templates that could be copied in his studio. He also worked with schematized models, enabling him to produce a particular model in various sizes, including the one shown here representing Saint Jerome. This procedure proved to be highly efficient and greatly helped the distribution of his paintings.

The Warhol of the Renaissance: Lucas Cranach, the Elder

The Virgin Mary

For the first time ever, the painting "Madonna with Child" (1510) is now being shown in Germany. For a long time, the famous work was believed to have been lost, but it turned out that during World War II, a priest in what is now Wrocław, Poland, had substituted the original with a copy in an attempt to protect it from potential war damage. The original resurfaced in 2012.

The Warhol of the Renaissance: Lucas Cranach, the Elder

Warhol and Cranach

As unlikely as it may sound, Andy Warhol was deeply impressed by Lucas Cranach's portraits of women. And indeed, some parallels are discernible between Cranach's mass production in his Wittenberg-based studio, and Andy Warhol's modern "factory." What counted for Cranach was not to produce unique works, but rather to produce them - or copies - in an efficient manner, and on time.

The Dutch government subsequently sold the works to the Stroganoffs, a Russian family, who then sold them in 1971 to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, which has owned them ever since.

Goudstikker's daughter-in-law, Marei von Saher, has been locked in an 11-year legal battle with the museum to get the paintings back. Her lawyer, Lawrence Kaye, said he was "obviously disappointed" by the court's ruling and would review the decision with his client.

The museum said in a statement it was pleased with the outcome, adding that the "decision should finally put this matter to rest."

Read moreHow Lucas Cranach, the Elder, became a Renaissance entrepreneur

The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena will be allowed to keep displaying its Cranach panels

The judge's reasoning

Several prominent works of art stolen by the Nazis have been the subject of lawsuits in recent years. The case of the two 1.9-meter (6.25-foot) Cranach panels — valued at an estimated $24 million (€20 million) — hinged largely on whether the string of past sales could be seen as lawful.

Read moreIrina Antonova: Looted art is 'the price paid for remembering'

Circuit Judge Margaret McKeown upheld a 2016 court decision acknowledging that, under Dutch law,  the Cranachs had been "enemy property" belonging to Göring. After the war that property was transferred to the Dutch government, which had the right to sell them in 1966 to George Stroganhoff-Scherbatoff, a descendant of the Russian aristocracy.

Why Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach is still a big deal

Two Cranachs, one purpose

On the 500th anniversary of his birth, Lucas Cranach the Younger is finally stepping out of the shadow of his father, known as the Elder. These two major painters of the 16th century worked in the courts of the rulers of Saxony and were especially famous for their portraits. They also befriended church reformer Martin Luther and documented the Reformation in their work.

Why Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach is still a big deal

Painters of the Reformation

The Cranachs' atelier was one of the most prolific in Europe. The rulers and intellectuals of the period were their guests - including the leaders of the Reformation movement, Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchthon. Pictured is a portion of a larger-than-life portrait of Melanchton. Even during their lifetimes, the Cranachs were among the most famous painters of the German Renaissance.

Why Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach is still a big deal

Taking the apple

Born on the cusp of the modern era, the Cranachs not only took the Reformation as their motive, but also depicted core scenes and lessons from the Bible. Pictured here is the temptation of Adam and Eve, painted in 1549. Miniaturization, light-filled landscapes, a low horizon are all characteristic of the younger Cranach's work.

Why Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach is still a big deal

Spotlight on people

The talented Lucas the Younger learned quickly from his father, becoming his right hand in the atelier. Lucas the son also developed his own perspective, focusing more on people than his father did. Here, his depiction of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River transcends time: Jesus is surrounded by the family of Martin Luther's fellow reformer, Johannes Bugenhagen.

Why Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach is still a big deal

Time is irrelevant in eternity

In this work from 1554, Cranach the Younger depicts the resurrection of Christ. The cross and the scarlet sky represent the Messiah's victory over death. Leipzig's mayor, Leonard Badehorn, commissioned the painting in memory of his deceased wife - so Cranach painted the sponsor's family into the scene.

Why Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach is still a big deal

Promoting Protestantism

As the Reformation took its course, the world the Cranachs lived in was divided into Catholic and Protestant camps. But the two painters accepted commissions from both denominations. Nevertheless, Cranach the Younger revealed his support for the newly established Protestantism in his work, as seen here in "Reformers and Papists in the Vineyard of the Lord" (1573-1574).

Why Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach is still a big deal

Effective techniques

Lucas Cranach the Younger had as many as 36 apprentices under his watchful eye. They worked in part with stencils to outline the basic physiology of their subjects, like Philipp I, Duke of Pomerania, pictured here.

Why Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach is still a big deal

Practice makes perfect

Portraits of nobility were often commissioned as gifts or painted posthumously, which made it impossible for the subject to pose. It was therefore useful for the atelier to maintain a collection of stencils and sketches of various important individuals. When a new painting was commissioned, sketches of heads and hands were practiced and then later implemented in the final work.

Why Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach is still a big deal

Reformers at the Last Supper

While Cranach the Elder tended to paint individual portraits associated with the Reformation, his son tended to paint the Reformers into biblical scenes, for example portraying them as Jesus' disciples, like in this nearly five-square-meter painting of the Last Supper.

Why Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach is still a big deal

Painter in the painting

The Last Supper painting contains a suprise: It shows not only the most important players in the Reformation and various members of the Principality of Anhalt, but also the younger Cranach himself. He can be found in the lower right corner in the role of a cupbearer. It's the only known self-portrait of the younger Cranach.

Why Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach is still a big deal

Pivotal shift

In addition to his countless church motives, Lucas Cranach the Younger also sold plenty of portraits and genre paintings. He continued his father's tradition of depicting humanistic motives, which represents a historic shift away from purely religious works. The naiad, a mythical creature, is just one example.

Why Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach is still a big deal

The trade mark

More than 5,000 works of art were created in the Cranachs' atelier. Their trade mark was this specially designed image of a crowned, winged snake with a ring in its mouth. This year, marking 500 years since the birth of Lucas Cranach the Younger in 1515, simultaneous exhibitions are taking place in Wittenberg, Dessau and Wörlitz.

McKeown said that the "act of state" doctrine validated the sale of the paintings by the Dutch government to Stroganoff.

She added that "the Nazi plunder of artwork was a moral atrocity that compels an appropriate governmental response," but said ruling in von Saher's favor would have required nullifying three "official" Dutch government actions: the 1966 sale to Stroganoff; a 1999 decision not to restore von Saher's rights; and a 2006 decision that her claim had been "settled."

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DocFilm | 31.03.2017

The Cranachs and Medieval Modern Art

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