Altdorfer’s Lot and His Daughters (1537)

The subject of Lot and His Daughters is so disturbing to some that it has long hidden the true scene from eyes that see literally. Once recognized though its thematic similarity to pictures of reclining nudes by many other artists over the centuries becomes abundantly clear. A selection of those revealed on EPPH is listed at the end. Painted the year before Altdorfer died, Lot and His Daughters depicts a repellent and naked father cuddling his nude daughter before or after having had sex. However, as we will see, on a deeper level the two together represent the androgyny of a pure mind.  

Although the biblical episode was a popular subject, this example is at once more explicit than most and less faithful to its source. Genesis recounts that after leaving Sodom Lot's daughters, concerned no men were around to father children, decided to sleep with their virtuous dad by making him so drunk he would be unaware of the incest. Here, though, the lecherous Lot looks quite capable of recognizing his nude daughter and, with her buttocks positioned over his groin, he's looking straight at her. So why, in this particular picture, is a good man behaving so badly?

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Captions for image(s) above:

Albrecht Altdorfer, Lot and His Daughters (1537) Oil on canvas. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna & detail below.

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First, as always, check the faces. Once we realize that the aged and ugly patriarch (left) is in fact a caricatural self-portrait we have our first real clue.

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Altdorfer, Lot and His Daughters, detail rotated
R: Portrait of Altdorfer, detail

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His daughter is odd too. An idealized nude in contrast to Lot's nakedness, her figure lacks weight and seems to float above her father. For instance, while his fingers press into her flesh, her figure make no impression on his. The lighting is inconsistent too. He is lit from above left; she mostly face-on from behind us as through a studio window. Those familiar with our explanation of Manet's Olympia and Titian's reclining nudes should thus recognize a familiar scene: an artist with his "painting". Lot is "real"; she is "painted". We see inside Altdorfer's mind where, in front of drapery fertile green, he (sexually) conceives his "painting" and merges it with the biblical story.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Altdorfer, Lot and His Daughters and detail

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Alcohol is used literally and metaphorically in multiple ways. In art of this kind intoxication often conveys imagination while alcohol in a glass represents a paint-pot. That makes the girl an "artist" too. Emphasizing its location in the mind, the shape of the flask (top left), "outside" the scene in the lower right corner (bottom), suggests an eyeball with its optic nerve, another common motif (top right). If so, the loose red straps may be substitutions for the red ocular muscles now disconnected.{ref1) (In the medical diagram they are shown pleasingly pink.) 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Altdorfer, Lot and His Daughters, two details
Bottom: Diagram of the eyeball with optic nerve and ocular muscles 

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Reclining nudes by a whole host of artists are visually and philosophically similar despite the major differences in subject and culture. Why? To gain serenity and fulfil our potential as human beings, we must take control of our thoughts and behavior changing our own self-image. As Gregory of Nyssa used to say in the 4th century AD, we must each become "the painter of our own life". Indeed it was a common metaphor. Early preachers often exhorted their audiences to paint themselves in the image of an idealized figure, usually of Christ.2 And that is why, ever since, in great art, literature and probably music, every painter paints himself.

Captions for image(s) above:

Top L: Altdorfer, Lot and His Daughters (1537)
Center L: Titian, Venus and Cupid with an Organist (c.1545-48)
Bottom L: Rubens, Angelica and the Hermit (c. 1625-28)
Top R: Ingres, Odalisque with Slave (c.1837-40)
Center R: Manet's Olympia (1863)
Bottom R: Picasso, Degas Fantasizing. Faun Whispering in a Woman's Ear (1971)

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Similar works explained on EPPH include Titian’s Shepherd and Nymph (c.1575-6), Danae, and Venus with an Organist (c.1550), Hendrick Goltzius' Sleeping Danae (1603), François Boucher's Reclining Nude (1730's), Edouard Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe (1863) and Olympia (1863) Gauguin's Loss of Virginity (1890-91) and Picasso's Reclining Nude with Man and Bird (1971).

More Works by Altdorfer

Notes:

1. There are several examples of artworks using the eyeball and its optic nerve in similar ways on EPPH including Michelangelo's Jonah panel on the Sistine ceiling. You will find others under the theme Behind the Artist's Eye.

2. Georgia Frank, “Painting Metaphors and Moral Discourse in Late Antique Christianity” in The Subjective Eye: Essays in Culture, Religion, and Gender in Honor of Margaret R. Miles, ed. Richard Valantasis (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications) 2006, pp. 33-47

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