P. Albert Kuhn – ‘Allgemeine Kunst-Geschichte’

IN Palma Vecchio’s works the human form is fuller, rounder, more opulent, and less ideal than in Giorgione’s; the colors in his pictures are not so rich nor so deeply shadowed—indeed, the whole scale on which they are painted is lighter and clearer, and the tones are blended into a soft and harmonious unison by means of a golden haze, and frequently by a most delicate sfumato. It is by his technique, and by the peculiar breadth and plumpness of his figures, rather than by any imagination or inventive power, that Palma’s works are characterized. He excelled in the same directions as did Giorgione—in the painting of altar-pieces; in the portrayal of those Sante Conversazioni, or ` Holy Conversations,’ scenes in which sacred personages are represented, and which may be said to correspond to Giorgione’s poetic idyls of rural life; and lastly, in a kind of portrait, or fancy character-study, partaking of the nature of genre.

In Palma’s religious pictures painted for churches the figures are sometimes strong and powerful, marked by dignity and elevation, and to these qualities a dazzling beauty is added, and a fullness of form decidedly suggestive of this world.

The so-called `Holy Conversations’ were not intended for churches, but for the decoration of private houses. In these the theme is always the same, though carried out with variations, the sacred subject becoming in Palma’s hands a sort of religious story of every-day life; for in all these outdoor scenes his conception is free and unconstrained, and somewhat mundane, although beneath it all there lies a rich strain of poetic beauty, and, as a rule, there is an ideal splendor and harmony of color.

More characteristic of Palma than any of the kinds of work just named, however, are the half-length figures of women, of which he painted so many that they are inseparably associated with his name, and in which he shows himself to be more truly Venetian than in any others of his works. Even in his altar-pieces we often find female figures—not excepting the Madonna herself—in which he has reproduced the features of one or another of the beautiful women who played so prominent a rôle in the brilliant life of Venice of that day. To the gifts of beauty with which nature had so richly endowed them, we are told that they sought to add new charms by means of the secret arts of the toilet. In his work, written in 1590, on the costumes of the time, Cesare Vecellio relates how skilful they were in imparting a tint yellow as gold to their naturally dark hair. And it would seem that Palma Vecchio freely took advantage of this feminine accomplishment, and in his turn understood how to offset the golden hue of the long braids or of the loosely flowing waves of hair with the most delicate flesh-tones, contrasting the whole with a splendid harmony of color in the garments and in the background. He never tired of glorifying this ideal of Venetian beauty, painting over and over again, in different positions and surroundings, the women who sat for him, sometimes concealing the identity of the model with classic garments and under a classic name, but oftener still portraying her in the rich and picturesque costume of Venice of the sixteenth century —FROM THE GERMAN

( Originally Published 1905 )

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