Lucas Cranach the Elder embodies the ideals of Renaissance man active not only as a painter and printmaker, but also as an entrepreneur and politician. Little can be stated with any certainty about his early life except that he was born in the town of Kronach in Northern Franconia as one of four children to the painter Hans Maler and that his mother's maiden name was Hübner. His exact birth date is unknown, but it was probably in the year 1472. A portrait from 1550 (now in the Uffizi, Florence) bearing an authentic inscription that claims the sitter to be Cranach the Elder aged 77, provides evidence which corresponds with the accounts of the artist's cousin and first biographer, Matthias Gunderam in 1556.
His early artistic training remains equally obscure. It is known that he was apprenticed to his father, Hans in Kronach, where he learned the crafts of the ars graphica and presumably the art of painting. Insufficient documentation has lead to much speculation about his Wanderjahre - years of travel - and real evidence with regards his artistic identity does not emerge until 1502 in Vienna. It is here that he assumes the name Lucas Cranach after his birth place, and begins to employ the initials 'LC'. Although this period was brief, less than two years in fact, his close association with a circle of humanist writers, particularly Johannes Cuspinian, proved to be very formative.
In the year 1505 Cranach was appointed court painter to Friedrich III the Wise, Elector of Saxony a position he occupied almost uninterrupted until his death. He moved to Wittenberg where his duties not only included the production of paintings and woodcuts but also entailed everything from the design and execution of decorative schemes to the supervision of craftsmen as well as the embellishment of weddings, tournaments and other court celebrations. In short Cranach was responsible for almost the entire asthetic ambience of the court. To meet these extensive demands he established a workshop initially in the Wittenberg castle and later in the town.
In 1508 he was awarded the heraldic letter bearing the symbol of a winged serpent by the elector. At an early stage Cranach began to identify his artistic production with the court and employed this insignia as a seal of approval on paintings produced by himself and his expanding workshop. That same year he journeyed in diplomatic service of the elector to the Netherlands where he visited the court of Margaret of Austria in Mechelen. Here he met the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I at the oath ceremony of his successor the eight year old Archduke Charles, later Charles V. Some years later Maximilian I commissioned Cranach along with the artist Albrecht Dürer to illustrate his prayer book.
Cranach soon became a man of status in the city of Wittenberg and began to prosper, a situation which was not achieved by artistic activity alone, but also by his talent as a businessman. By the 1520s he had a license to sell wine, had been repeatedly elected as a member of the Wittenberg town council, and was owner of numerous properties, a publishing press (together with Christian Döring) and an apothecary. In 1523 he hosted King Christian II of Denmark as a guest in his home and a year later he accompanied the elector to the Reichstag in Nuremberg where he met his friend Albrecht Dürer again.
As an artist Cranach is known for his portraits, both of German princes and those of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, whose cause he embraced with enthusiasm. He became a close friend of Martin Luther and the numerous portraits which survive testify to this sympathy. He also painted religious subjects, first in the catholic tradition as the catholic Albertine branch of Saxon princes and Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg numbered amongst his most important patrons. Later inspired by his friend and mentor Melanchthon he explored new way of conveying Lutheran religious concerns.
From the mid 1520s the size and productivity of the Wittenberg workshop increased. Cranach developed techniques which enabled him to paint speedily and procedures of standardization which facilitated easy workshop delegation. Consequently many works now exist in different versions. The 1530s witnessed a further specialization in subjects drawn from mythology, an interest which similar to that of religious subjects continued throughout his career. At this stage both his sons Hans (c.1513-1537) and Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586) were active members of the workshop enterprise.
Cranach lost his position as court painter after the defeat of the Elector Johann Friedrich I at the Battle of Mühlberg in 1547. In 1550 he followed his master who had been imprisoned by the Emperor Charles V in Augsburg and Innsbruck into captivity. It was here that he met the Italian artist Titian, an encounter which was too late in his career to impinge. Johann Friedrich was liberated in 1552 and returned north to settle in Weimar, with Cranach at his side. A year later, on the 16th of October, Cranach passed away.
The workshop enterprise outlived him and his extraordinary artistic creativity is accentuated by the fact that his son Lucas Cranach the Younger, and other members, continued to create versions of his works for decades after his death. Today the success of the enterprise can be measured on more than one thousand paintings that have been preserved, and the difficultly to secure authorship of the highest quality works.