An imminent return in situ for a Venus by Cranach the Younger with the princely pedigree of Anatole Demidoff, which was first sold at the Hôtel Drouot 159 years ago.
Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586), Venus and Cupid Stealing Honey, oil on reinforced panel, 51 x 35 cm (20 x 13.8 in).
Estimation: 1/1.5 M€
The auctioneer Charles Pillet and the expert Ferdinand Laneuville auctioned off "one of the most famous galleries in Europe" at the Hôtel Drouot in 1863—the name of the owner was an open secret. Lord Herford spent 110,550 francs and the Duke of Galleria 36,910, but they were not the only ones. The Duke of Aumale, still in exile, bought La Maladie d'Antiochus (The Illness of Antiochus) by Ingres for 92,000 francs (Chantilly, Musée Condé). Some works came from Nicolas Demidoff's collections, but most of the lots were acquired by his son Anatole. Although his amorous antics and his very bad behavior towards his wife, Mathilde Bonaparte, have passed into posterity, Anatole was also an exceptional patron of the arts—who sponsored the Voyage dans la Russie méridionale et la Crimée (Journey to Southern Russia and the Crimea) and the Voyage pittoresque et archéologique en Russie (Picturesque and Archaeological Journey to Russia)—, a voracious bibliophile, an enthusiast of "Napoleonic memorabilia" and, above all, a very committed collector.
In her Mémoires inédits (Unpublished Memoirs), in which she did not fail to mock her husband, Mathilde Bonaparte recalls how father and son, who were not very appreciated by the Russian court, had gained a certain consideration in Europe thanks to their sumptuous spending: "The presence of the old Demidoff in Florence had enlivened society in a singular way. He had theatrical performances given at his home by traveling actors and, although he was almost completely crippled, his home was full of feasts, balls and concerts. This lasted until his death in 1829. He commissioned the construction of the San Donato residence, where he lived and where he established a silk factory. The son kept this establishment, which he later turned into a princely residence. "From the Arab Salon to the Luca Giordano Salon, from the Boucher Salon to the Greuze Salon, from the ballroom to the Turkish room, everywhere the same munificence won the visitors' approval. Most of the objects were auctioned off during the ten auctions on Boulevard Italien in 1870 and those at the Villa San Donato in 1880, but Anatole had already begun to draw the curtain at the 1863 auction. Many of his paintings now adorn the walls of major museums or are well-identified in literature. This was not the case with this "Cranach Demidoff", listed in the 1863 catalog as a Sujet allégorique (Allegorical Subject).
Idyll by Theocritus
"Dum puer alveolo furatur milla cupido / Furanti digitum cuspite fixit apis / Sic etiam nobis brevis et peritura voluptas / Quam petimus tristi mixta dolore nocet" appears clearly on the decorative border at the top left, which means "While the child Cupid was stealing honey from the hive, a bee with its stinger stung the thief on the finger, so the brief and vain voluptuousness, which is inseparable from pain, causes us harm, while we are looking for it". The continuation of this passage from Theocritus' Idyll, one of Cranach senior's favorite subjects, is famous: Cupid showed his wound to his mother, complaining that such a small animal had caused such a large wound, to which she replied that he himself resembled the bee when he stung his own prey with his arrows. The apparent sweetness of Cupid, seductively appealing, with his sad baby face whose eyes seem to be filled with big tears, is thus a decoy. The luxury of the jewels and the sensuality of Venus' pose contrast with her features that express a certain annoyance towards the toddler.
There is no doubt about the scene's moralizing significance. We are in Wittenberg in the 16th century, and the Cranachs, father and son, were close to the circles of Luther and his disciple Melanchthon. Cranach senior was a witness at the former's wedding and his son married the latter's niece, whom they also portrayed. Within the humanist community, the verses of "Cupid stealing honey" were in turn translated from Greek to Latin by a host of scholars. Cranach senior chose to respect the interpretation of Melanchton's son-in-law, Sabinus. From 1527, the subject was treated about twenty times in the family workshop, but all the compositions differ from each other.
The Amateur's Cabinet
In 1863, the expert Laneuville considered that "the nude figure which undoubtedly represents Wisdom, and that of the child who receives the lesson a little too late, were conceived and drawn in that taste which distinguishes Cranach's compositions (sic). "He did not make a distinction between Cranach the Elder and Cranach the Younger. It is difficult to blame him: it is often a challenge, especially since they shared the same signature, the dragon with the lying wings (here at the top left) and the same workshop where the works were produced under their family name. For the Cranach specialist Dieter Koepplin, however, there is no doubt about the attribution. "According to photographs, it is a work by Lucas Cranach the Younger from 1540-1550", which is close to the version in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg (letter of August 13, 2022). In both versions, the absent-minded man mistakenly wrote "Cuspite" instead of "Cuspide". Here, he also wrote "Milla" and not "Mella"... Finally, there remains to be found the Leda which formed a counterpart at Demidoff's with Venus and Cupid Stealing Honey.