Back to School

Ooh it’s enough to send even us grown-ups into a grump: today in DC (and only a week or so away in the UK), the summer holidays are officially over for droves of students. This morning they’ll have to rise and shine a lot earlier than they’ve got used to, to sleepily suck some cereal into their faces before boarding the bus, the parental taxi or the pavement to schlep to school. Summer assignments will be handed in and new ones set. There’ll be tests and trials and trying not to drop your lunch tray as you make your way to a table.

I wasn’t one to totally loathe school (some might even suggest I was a biiit of a geek) and certainly enjoyed some things about the start of term: seeing friends again, or favourite teachers (like I said, geek), our new classroom and so on. Best of all was our annual pre-school drop-in to a hyper-marché at the end of our holiday in France: here I’d get to gather all the interesting European stationary I could grab.

In honor of today’s disgruntled (and the odd excited) student, we’re taking in this little Prince and Princess of Saxony, because (and call me crazy) but from the first time I clocked this pair, I’ve been thinking “school photo”. You know the ones that get done at the start of an academic year, of the young (students) and the old (teachers), all sitting pretty and smiling inanely at the camera. Well, the connection might be a courageous one, but these portraits serve similar purposes to our photos now of the young in their uniforms.

Lucas Cranach (1472 – 1553) was a painter, etcher and designer of woodcuts and one of the most successful and innovative artists of the Northern Renaissance. He established his reputation in Vienna, working in the cultural circle around the newly-founded university, but it was when he went to Wittenberg to become Court Painter to the Electors of Saxony that he became truly successful.

Our little Prince and Princess (both dated c. 1517) were no doubt painted in the line of duty: royal progeny that wanted recording and celebrating in paint. Is it not instantly clear that Cranach is a splendid portraitist? In his career he came up with the full-length portrait as an independent work, but even in these little-bitty pictures, there’s the thud of kids clattering into the room and the thrill of two tiny personalities. There’s all the red relish of their garments to deal with first: he has on a garnet red brocaded tunic topped off with a russet cloak. At his neck there tinkles intricate beading and gilding. Our Princess must be pleased with her ornate dress, laced across the front and interrupted by puffed sleeves, all enlivened across the neck with garlanded swathes of what look like loosely-looped banded chains.

The crunch for Cranach comes in the faces, painted with a tenderness and an insight that pricks emotion behind the eyes. His little crown has slipped lop-sided and he half-looks, half thinks about smiling at us. Her gaze is more steady, angled off to a side, her mouth is fixed and her eyes are unflinching. This is so much more than a faithful following of some kiddie features: Cranach has captured something essential in these characters. For me the little Prince might be one to watch: there’s something cheeky in the alertness of his face, while our Princess looks like an obedient little girl, maybe a model student in class today.

2 thoughts on “Back to School

  1. Do you think that there is any reason behind the way the hands are positioned on both, mainly the Prince? It seems a bit unnatural of a position. In the girl’s case they seem to be the sign of someone in a awkward position maybe that wants to move? When I think of a submissive or obedient person, I think of one balled fist cupped in the other hand. For the boy I can’t get over how perfectly circular his bottom hand is, as if someone came along and pulled a scroll out of his hand.

  2. Oh I see what you mean, Peter. Very eye-catching, the hands. I can’t say for sure what the positions might indicate, but I do know that after the face, the hands are used by artists as the most expressive part of a person in a portrait… It could be that the small male has much to convey in terms of eventual power and status.

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