THE fact that Palma Vecchio never signed or dated a picture, together with the very few dates, and even those only of his later years, known from documents, makes it easy to understand how difficult it is to trace his artistic developmentthe more so, as the character of his painting under-went only slight variations during the different decades of his life. As it was with all painters born in the Bergamask province, his art always preserved a strong character of provincialism, which distinguishes him at once from the native-born Venetians. He must have received his first instruction from one of the fifteenth-century masters who followed more the older traditions. This may be seen from the fact that he painted many pictures of the Virgin with saints and donors in half-length figures, like one of the generation of later fifteenth-century artists, Bissolo, Catena, or Cima; and that some of his altar-pieces, among them his most famous, have the form of a polyptych, a painting in many parts, which rarely occurs in the sixteenth century. But this fifteenth-century element is discernible only on the outside of Palma’s art; his treatment of form, his sense of color, his understanding of nature, give him his position with the masters of the sixteenth century, with Giorgione, Titian, and Sebastiano del Piombo. So that he occupies a place in Venice not unlike Fra Bartoiommeo’s in Florencethat of an artist who invested the composition of a previous period with the form of the classic style in Italian art.
But it is not this alone that gives Palma Vecchio a distinct position in the history of Venetian art. He did not, perhaps, introduce, but he certainly developed more than any of his contemporaries the theme generally characterized as a `Holy Conversation’; this means the reunion of various saints around the Holy Family seated in a meadow, with a background of dark trees and a view of an open landscape extending to the blue mountains beyond. Again and again he repeated this theme, which afterwards became more popular in the work of his pupil Bonifazio. Besides this, Venetian art is indebted to Palma for certain pictures of beautiful womennot portraits, but highly idealized forms with somewhat sensual expressions. . . .
As a colorist Palma Vecchio has his own position among the Venetian masters of his time. Even at a glance it is easy to recognize his work. His color-scheme is brilliant and of a light, almost golden, general tone. The hair of his women is very light and the flesh-tones fair. His handling of the brush is smooth, so that the general impression of his art is frequently somewhat effeminate. In his later years his pictures are sometimes pale in coloring; not a few of these were finished by his pupils, Bonifazio and others; some of them, indeed, because of the large share which his assistants had in completing them, have up to the present time remained unrecognized as his work.