Julia Cartwright – ‘Christ And His Mother In Italian Art’

PALMA VECCHIO never dated his pictures, but as his style passed through three successive stages, we are able to determine the chronology of his works with some degree of exactness. During his first period he followed the orthodox traditions of Venetian art, and painted in the sober and dignified manner of his master Giovanni Bellini. In the second or middle period his style became more fully developed, and displayed a freedom and splendor of coloring that were plainly the result of his intercourse with Giorgione and Titian. Finally, in his last years he adopted a broader technique and a soft golden tone, which often recall Correggio’s style, and are recognized as marks of his third or “blond” manner.

Among the finest works of his maturity are the altar-pieces in the Church of San Stefano at Vicenza, and in Santa Maria Formosa at Venice. The first is modeled on the old traditions of the fifteenth century, and represents the Virgin enthroned between St. Lucy and St. George, with a child-angel playing a lute on the steps at her feet. The second was painted for the chapel of the Bombardieri in the Church of Santa Maria Formosa, Venice. Here the queenly form of St. Barbara, in crimson robes with a crown on her head and a palm in her hand, is one of Palma’s grandest creations. A third altar-piece, now in the Academy of Venice, represents St. Peter enthroned, with an open book on his knee and six other saints at his side. To the same period belong the best of those `Holy Families,’ known as Sante Conversazioni, which Palma was the first to introduce, and which soon became popular in Venice. These happy groups, resting in sunny meadows or forest glades, with farm-houses perched on the heights above, and blue hills in the distance, naturally appealed to the rich Venetians’ taste for country life, and Palma, who had peas-ant blood in his veins, took especial delight in these pastoral surroundings which recalled the rural scenes of his mountain home. The fashion which he had set was quickly adopted by contemporary artists, and developed on a larger scale by his pupil Bonifazio. One splendid example of this class of composition by Palma’s own hand is in the gallery of Naples; another is the well-known `Adoration of the Shepherds’ in the Louvre. But of all these rural scenes the fairest and most perfect idyl is the `Meeting of Jacob and Rachel,’ in the Dresden Gallery.

Yet a third class of subjects must be named among Palma’s works. These are the portraits both of men and women, which, like all his Venetian con-temporaries, he painted in large numbers at every period of his career. Chief among his pictures of men is the famous poet of the National Gallery, with the laurel background and the gold chain on his crimson robe—one of Palma’s noblest works. The beauties whom he painted, whether under their own names or in the characters of Lucrezia and Venus, were mostly Venetian ladies of great houses, such as the Contarini, the Priuli, and Querini, who were all among Palma’s most liberal patrons. Soon he became the fashionable painter of these large, white-skinned, yellow-haired ladies who bathed their locks with golden washes and sat on the roof while their hair dried in the sunshine. Many are the portraits of this type that meet us in public and private galleries. There is the `Lucrezia’ of the Borghese Gallery, Rome, and the `Venus’ of Dresden, a nude woman lying on a white cloth—painted, it must be confessed, with little of Titian’s power or of Giorgione’s charm. There is the ` Judith’ of the Uffizi Gallery and the so-called `Bella di Tiziano,’ formerly of the Sciarra Gallery, in her red mantle, holding the jewel-case in her hand. And there are the `Three Sisters,’ at Dresden, all three of whom have the same full-blown forms, the same placid, comely faces, the same yellow hair, and are painted in Palma’s blondest manner, without much sense of refinement, but not without a certain charm. The Imperial Gallery at Vienna boasts no less than six of Palma’s beauties, among them the famous ‘Violante’ with the violet at her breast and the masses of wavy golden hair, who was so favorite a model with the Venetian masters of that time.

To the end of his life Palma’s art bore signs of the hardy robustness which he had inherited from his mountain race, and remained more vigorous and imposing, if less refined and intellectual, than that of the other great Venetian masters.

( Originally Published 1905 )

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