Lucas Cranach the Elder: Portrait of Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous from Diptych: Two Electors of Saxony. 1509 (Detail), see below picture for source and size

Lucas Cranach the Elder: Portrait of Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous from Diptych: Two Electors of Saxony. 1509 (Detail), see below picture for source and size

I have this recurring fascination with Northern Renaissance portraits. Especially Albrecht Dürer and Lukas Cranach are very dear to me. Their peculiar realism is still very individual. Maybe realism is a wrong term, because these artists paint people like only they can see them. It’s a unity between the model and the painter arising from those hours spent together.

Lucas Cranach the Elder: Portrait of Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous. 1509. Source: National Gallery.

Lucas Cranach the Elder: Portrait of Johann Friedrich the Magnanimous. 1509. 42 x 31.2 cm. Oil on Wood. (right = detail) Source: National Gallery.

Take for example Cranach’s portrait of a 6 year old child (who later became the Elector of Saxony), which is part of a Dyptych that joins this child’s portrait to that of his father.

It is not exactly a beautiful face, not ugly either – just a certain squintness, an unevenness (look at the nostrils or eyes for example) that makes this portrait feel honest, as if the painter has rendered what he was able to see. There is a seriousness in the boy’s face, that I can imagine well if he sat as a model for Cranach in his probably uncomfortable pretty clothes and hat. Can you imagine a child of 6 sitting still for so long? He looks almost a bit worried or strained with his raised eyebrows. He avoids eye contact by a tiny margin, something that makes me almost a bit uncomfortable.

Albrecht Dürer: Porträt einer Windischen Bäuerin.1505. 35 × 26.6 cm. Kreide, Hintergrund nachträglich mit dunkel olivgrüner Wasserfarbe, auf Papier, etwas beschnitten. Aufbewahrungsort:Rotterdam. Museum Boymans-van Beuningen.

Albrecht Dürer: Porträt einer Windischen Bäuerin. 1505. 35 × 26.6 cm. Kreide, Hintergrund nachträglich mit dunkel olivgrüner Wasserfarbe, auf Papier, etwas beschnitten. Aufbewahrungsort: Rotterdam. Museum Boymans-van Beuningen.

Dürer shows a similar disposition to “just look and really see”, double chins, laughing lines and all, like in his chalk drawing of a woman above. It is 500 years old and yet I can still feel how very much alive she was in 1505. Her forms (cheeks, chin, neck) swelling, a slight smile, a hairband keeping her hair out of her face. She appears kind and quick to laugh. Is she a beauty? Not in the standard sense. But on that day, seen with Dürer’s eyes she was just perfect. And he made me see that.