Lucas Cranach the Elder – The Ill-matched Couple: Young Man and Old Woman (1520 – 1522)

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.

Lucas Cranach the Elder - The Ill-matched Couple
Lucas Cranach the Elder – The Ill-matched Couple: Young Man and Old Woman (1520 – 1522), oil on beechwood

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

33 thoughts on “Lucas Cranach the Elder – The Ill-matched Couple: Young Man and Old Woman (1520 – 1522)

  1. Welcome back. Maverick Mist’s posts were helping with my art cravings but now that I have two sources again I’m hoping the jitters will completely go away. I love this theme taking the hypocrisy of the situation and shoving it in your face. One thing I really like about this painting is how the lady’s hand out on the counter tends to pull the couple (especially her) out of the canvas into the viewers’ space.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, David! Haha, I’m sorry you had to go through withdrawal. If it’s of any help, there is an app called DailyArt which you might enjoy. It inspired me in creating the blog, as I wanted to find out more about some of those artworks (they later expanded their team, so now they offer more info).

      Yes, that hand reaching out is a nice touch. The painting would look so much flatter without it. I also like how swollen her hands are. There’s something expressive about them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a very common thing in Asia, and in Thailand it’s quite often an older Western guy and a young Thai woman from the countryside. I sued to judge this rather harshly, but there is reciprocal advantage taking. The younger woman will often have a child or two by another man, and only an older white guy will marry her. There’s also a notion that the older the better, because the sooner he will die and one will be through with him, but keep the house he paid for, etc…

    As always, the less we know the more we think we know, and the most judgmental person is probably the least qualified to judge. Youthful love is frequently about bodies, where in these odd couples, well, it might be more about who the person is (if it’s not just about the money).

    Anyway, the man’s fingers on the woman’s shoulder look like a caterpillar. Her right hand is also painful. Not that any of that matters, except that I take comfort in such imperfections.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was just reading the other day about a study that found that, when it comes to online dating, women’s desirability peaks at 18 (going downhill from there), while men’s peaks at 50. That might explain the age difference in some of these couples. In the art world we kinda take them for granted anyway, with Picasso being the most famous example. But when it comes to older women dating/marrying much younger men, that’s where we have a problem. It shouldn’t be that way.

      I like her hands! It’s like she has an illness or something. Arthritis, perhaps.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “But when it comes to older women dating/marrying much younger men, that’s where we have a problem. It shouldn’t be that way. ”

        On the face of it I agree with you, but there’s a subtle and elusive conundrum tucked in there that I’m having a real difficult time reeling in. Person #! thinks that older women and younger men SHOULDN’T date. Person #2 says person #1 SHOULDN’T think that. In both cases someone is telling someone else not to do something. Both are a kind of social engineering.

        I know this sounds ridiculous. I have to ponder it more.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hmm. It’s not like I’m doing any thought policing here, I was merely thinking of hypocritical attitudes within a society. I don’t think it’s due to sexism necessarily that we sanction older women, while rewarding older men. I know biology plays a massive role here too. But visibility is also important. If we saw more couples in which the woman was older, we’d be more ok with the idea. It’s why I continue to be intrigued by Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron. Kudos to them!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I didn’t think you were among the ranks of the thought police. Rather, while I share your sentiment, I am questioning my own morality, which I must acknowledge is not my own at all: it is the accepted morality of the society and era I am a part of. [Well, it’s a little out-dated. I’ve refused to upgrade to “U.S. Morality 10.0, The Social Justice Paradigm”. I prefer the old-school, liberal, enlightenment, humanistic, operating system.] If my morality is dictated by my society – it’s a kind of tacit agreement of compliance in order to be a viable member of civilization (and not a pariah) – would it be very different if I were a member of a different society? If so, than is it really about the good, or just agreeing to the rules of the game I’m a part of playing? When I exhibit my morality, am I acting as an enforcer of those rules to others? Is that not a bad thing at all? We are social beings, and we exist in a network of understanding and agreed-upon values and notions of reality. That network is evolving, and perhaps our morality is becoming broader and more complex.

            I think, to stick with my metaphor, the new operating system for our civilization has some flaws that are making me question its fundamental assumptions, many of which are my most deeply held.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Does this make morality a useless social construct that stifles our freedom to think and act on our own? And what is truly the difference between a personal opinion and a judgment? It must come down to the audience – if they sense the speaker is being self-righteous or looking down on them and other groups. By expressing an opinion I don’t think that I’m imposing my moral standards on anyone, but others might beg to differ.

              And I think you’re right. Morality isn’t necessarily about the good, it’s more about the rules within one society/community. When we do think for ourselves, we tend to do it from a place of justifying our own attitudes, behavior and past and present experiences. It’s a search for meaning, the building of a narrative that will make sense of all this mess. I’m not sure morality would have any value if we lived on our own, perfectly isolated from one another.

              Liked by 1 person

              1. This is a big question, and I’m just starting to percolate on this. There’s just something that’s bothering me, and something I’m realizing. I’m going to write a rant about some of my ideas on this. But one thing I find very interesting is that there was a study that found people’s stance on political topics (ex., climate change) was NOT based on how informed they were on the topic, surprisingly, but rather on their group affiliation. In other words, ones morality may merely represent group allegiance.

                I’m not arguing for immorality, but questioning whether “morality” is really about morals, and not just changing the rules to benefit whichever group on belongs to in a struggle for power.

                Liked by 1 person

              2. Harold and Maude ,1971. Have we figured out more, or forgotten it? Of course this whole discussion made me think of the cult classic movie which I saw last probably over 30 years ago. This trailer makes me think I need to watch it again. I’m assuming you must have seen it, but, just in case you somehow missed it, trailer attached.

                Note in trailer Maude advises Harold, “Aim above morality”, apropos to our discussion. It used to be that philosophers and artists thought it was stupid to judge art on moral grounds, but now it is the norm, and with furious wrath. Meanwhile I think the notion that “morality’ may just be a jockeying for power for and within ones group has merit. Somewhere there was a flip, and in art we stopped valuing virtuosity and started valuing virtue. And the burning question is whether or not said “virtue” is really virtuous, or just self-interest and relativism stomping on aesthetics. I think I find the older model — as we see in Harold and Maude — more life-affirming and open.

                I’ll be thinking about this for weeks and months and years.

                Liked by 2 people

                1. I never watched the movie, no. In fact, I’ve seen very few 70s movies. The trailer sure makes it look interesting.

                  Politics and morality, that’s a whole can of worms right there. I was thinking more along the lines of how a certain behavior/attitude/identity is approved or rejected in different societies, not within the same one. Say, homosexuality. It’s considered normal in the West, but seen as a deviation in many parts of the world. In those places, hate crimes against the LGBTQ are deemed as moral. It’s why religion (as in being part of a religion while calling all others heathens) never made much sense to me. It’s more of a geographic lottery that randomly determines one’s beliefs and automatically sets their moral compass.

                  Yup, it’s a thorny, lengthy issue. I’m looking forward to your rant!

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. How is it that you haven’t seen many movies of the 70’s? Are you that young?

                    I think in the West in the late 60’s to the early 70’s there was a great blossoming of culture, and people were aspiring to higher levels of creativity in music and film (visual art somehow got lost in tedious mind games). Some of the best films are from that era. I think it has a lot to do with the liberal imbibing of psychedelics, but that’s another story.

                    “a certain behavior/attitude/identity is approved or rejected in different societies”. Right, and your example of homosexuality is only recently accepted in the West. Hillary Clinton was passionately and eloquently against gay marriage when that was the dominant attitude, but did a 180 when the attitude changed. Did her private feelings bout homosexuality change, or did her public stance merely change?

                    People enforcing Sharia law think they are upholding morality. The witch burners of the Inquisition were protecting the moral from the wicked. The Nazis were banding together against the perceived “evil other” of the Jews. “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was the name of the war on Iraq, the ostensible goal of which was to eliminate a tyrant and free the people.

                    And we are talking about this partly because politics and “morality” has taken over the art world. Is this righteous posturing really in the name of the good, or is it just another group of people predictably trying to benefit themselves at the expense of others? One thing to look for is if there is an “evil other” who is seen as the enemy, if there is an attempt to eliminate the competition, and if ones moral position is advocating for oneself. If so, than we are not sacrificing art for morality, but for more immorality in a different form. In my experience that is not only the case, but flagrantly so.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    1. I’m not that young, I’ll be turning 29 soon. But we’re more likely to be familiar with the culture from the decades we grew up in. When I think of the 70s in terms of movies, one recurrent theme is the Vietnam War, which seems so foreign and distant to me. Anyway, I see you posted!

                      Liked by 1 person

                    2. I’m 52, so I grew up in the 70’s, and Vietnam is still very real. In fact it is more real to me than subsequent wars.

                      The good news is there are some amazing movies which you haven’t discovered yet. And I rather think you will be find the same social issues that people discuss today as if they are new were already covered way back then.

                      Recently I started watching much older films with fascination. We are really blessed in having an outstanding film record stretching back to at least the 50’s in high quality.

                      One startling thing to me, as an English teacher, is just how little language has changed and how perfectly clear the English is from before I was born. I also see that despite all our technology, life wasn’t so different.

                      Finally, when someone tells me there’s a movie I just must see or a boo I have to read before I die, I feel lucky I still have that to look forward to.

                      You might do an experiment and watch Harold and Maude, see how much has and hans’t changed. I don’t think we’ve become more enlightened at all, so to speak, but merely more savvy with technology.

                      Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s an interesting painting, my initial reaction was to focus on the mismatch in age but then the more I looked at it the more I thought that the young man is taking advantage of his older bride. It’s a challenging painting because if the genders were swapped we wouldn’t react in the same way although many of the same dynamics would be present.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s partly why I chose it, Emma. The beautiful, young woman who marries an older, rich man has become such a stereotype. We see it as normal. Politicians, movie stars, artists, writers – many of them get much younger partners. A couple consisting of an older woman and a young man, on the other hand, is going to raise far more suspicions. We’re just not used to it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Welcome back!
    How interesting to showcase the age gap from this perspective. There definitely is an element of pragmatism but I do hope in reality there are, at least, many cases of it just being for real affection and mutual respect too. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, KD! You’re such a hopeless romantic, tee hee. The notion of a marriage based on love has been quite a recent development in our history. People have been otherwise pragmatic for centuries! When mocking these couples, the protestants really wanted unions based on virtue and love for God. But, just like you, I do hope that nowadays people will be together out of love than for cynical reasons. And if there’s no love, that’s ok too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lol. That is true… hopeless romantic. Marriage at one point was for the primary intention of procreation… so…. pragmatism had to be a priority. So great the kinds of discussions art can trigger.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. It’s wonderful, indeed, the sort of meditations and discussions that arise from art. There’s just so much to take in! The art itself, the artists, the era they were living in, the subject/object and its psychology etc. I could never get bored of that.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Who would have thought of Lucas Cranach the Elder choosing such a daring subject? I completely agree with you that then (and now) the reverse of this couple would not get any raised eyebrows but this! Now? And especially then? Wonderful to spend some time looking at it, thanks to your sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading, Ingrid! I really appreciate Lucas Cranach the Elder’s sense of fashion. The ladies (and sometimes men) in his paintings have some really nice outfits. And I liked how he didn’t just show older men with young women, but the reverse too. Well, as long as they’re not deluding themselves or their partners, people should be free to be with whomever they choose.

      Liked by 1 person

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