As Martin Luther’s darling, German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder tried to convey the ideals of the Reformation into art, often drawing inspiration from religion and mythology. One popular theme during that time was the grotesque marriage – an alliance based on money, in which there is a huge age difference. Cranach completed a whole series of paintings inspired by this theme, typically involving a very rich, old man and a young, beautiful woman.
In The Ill-matched Couple: Young Man and Old Woman the German artist reversed the narrative, portraying a couple in which the woman is old and rich, while the man is young and handsome. As the young man gazes seemingly tenderly in his lover’s eyes, with his left hand resting on her upper back, the woman is taking coins from her purse and placing them in the man’s right hand. Each brings to the relationship their strongest assets: beauty and youth on one side, wealth and pragmatism on the other, for the woman must know that he only wants her for her money. From a religious standpoint, one could argue that all these qualities are ephemeral and that their relationship is doomed to fail, as it is subject to vanity and greed. Beauty will pass, youth will wither, while wealth is often the lackey to fate’s caprices.
Even to this day, try as we might to stay open-minded, these age-imbalanced relationships raise a lot of eyebrows. We are so used to thinking of love as a romantic partnership based on similarities, that a contrast as strong as this one would never go unnoticed, nor would it be socially welcomed. And yet, the sincere, toothless and purposefully grotesque grin of the old woman seems to make it all worthwhile: why not live a little? When so many well-matched, perfectly compatible couples fail to stand the test of time, then who’s to say a cynical arrangement such as this one wouldn’t do any better.
Next time: From Russia with love