PALMA VECCHIO, the painter of portraits of women with soft, gleaming flesh and golden hair, is, next to Titian, the most popular of the Venetian masters. In the landscape backgrounds of his pictures, in the general arrangement of his compositions, and frequently in the figures themselves, Giorgione’s influence is perceptible; but he is not Giorgione’s equal in intensity of feeling or power of expression. Palma’s range is not extended, and the same subject is so frequently repeated that it is not difficult to recognize his pictures. His forte lay in painting women; when he did portray men he was apt to give them gentle and somewhat effeminate faces, and it is only on rare occasions that he succeeded in painting a really strong male figure, such as the St. George in one of his finest pictures, the great altar-piece in the Church of San Stefano at Vicenza.
His figures of women, painted either singly or in groups, were not so often meant to be portraits of any special persons as they were to represent a type; and beautiful as many of them are, more beautiful still than their faces, which although possessing a certain charm are apt to be somewhat vapid, are their garments, to which far more importance is given than to the figures. As to the hands, so significant in the work of many of the great painters skilled in the portrayal of character, they are wholly lacking in any distinctive expression. The landscapes which Palma introduced into his pictures, however, are of exquisite beauty, and a serene and cheerful, though never a very animated spirit pervades his scenes.
When, as was rarely the case, he essayed the nude, as for example the ‘Venus’ of the Dresden Gallery, and the `Adam and Eve’ in Brunswick, we see that his drawing is less correct and his whole conception far less elevated than in Giorgione’s or Titian’s treatment of similar subjects. Even in his draped figures of women the flesh is more effective in its coloring than it is true to nature. But the. richness of his palette, the enamel-like quality of his technique, the brilliancy of his lights, are all fully displayed in the appurtenances of the toilet, in the care of which the fashionable ladies of Venice spent a great portion of their time; and when he represents their golden or auburn-colored hair, or paints their rich dresses of brilliant hues whose voluminous folds and ample puffs not only covered but completely concealed the shape of the figure, Palma was in his element. In the rendering of costly stuffs all the splendor of his art is displayed, and it is in them that we see in its perfection that Palmesque coloring characteristic of a technique peculiarly his own.
The fact that Palma never signed or dated any of his canvases makes it impossible, in studying his development as a painter, to assign any exact chronological places to his pictures. But as he was neither very profound as an artist nor very varied in his achievement, and as his development was limited almost wholly to the one direction of coloring, uncertainty as to the precise period when any single picture was painted does not prevent an understanding of his work as a whole. Only once did he rise to a great, an almost monumental style, and that was when he painted for the Venetian artillerists the altar-piece for their chapel in the Church of Santa Maria Formosa at Venice, with St. Barbara, the patroness of soldiers, upon the central panela figure so truly grand that it is worthy to rank with the finest ideal creations of Italian painting. To this same period may be assigned the important altar-piece of the Madonna and saints in Vicenza.
Prior to the time when these works were painted, several different “manners” led up to the point at which Palma attained his greatest skill as a colorist. His early work, the `Adam and Eve’ in the Brunswick Gallery, is painted in a comparatively speaking colorless wayin brownish tones; later on, his palette became more varied, but the colors, although brilliant, were not blended into an effect of unity; his shadows were dark, and the drawing was distinctly defined. By degrees he arrived at a more fluent execution, overcoming all that was hard in outline and glaring in color, and bathing the whole in’ an indescribably lovely golden light. To this latest period belong some of his celebrated portraits of beautiful women.
Because of a certain spirit known as “Palmesque,” which pervades his work and causes it to make an immediate appeal to the spectator; because, too, of the gem-like quality of color in many of his pictures, to say nothing of the peculiar type of his women’s portraits, it has been maintained by some critics that Palma Vecchio was an influential, an epoch-marking painter. In reality, however, his was a nature more receptive than it was calculated to leave its impress upon others. His art, as has been said, was somewhat limited, but in spite of this his works are characterized by much beauty and expression.ABRIDGED FROM THE GERMAN
( Originally Published 1905 )
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