Jacopo Negretti, called Palma il Vecchio
Portrait of a Woman

canvas; 47 × 37 cm
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts, inv. N. A-195

In spite of its uneven condition – a number of retouchings can be detected on the right of the painting, around the eye, dress, cheek and breast (Berenson 1957, p. 124; Rylands 1988, p. 198) – this “beautiful” figure of a woman portrayed by Palma retains all her fresh Giorgionesque vitality. Palma learned the half-bust portrait technique first from Giorgione, then Titian and concentrates on a surface naturalism, carefully rendering the sheen of the skin and the texture of the various types of fabric in the dress. The young blonde – “soft, evanescent, with a touch of pre-Seicentesque sensual languor” (Venturi 1928, pp. 432–433) – is wearing a green dress with a lush fur collar, fastened at the front with a grey ribbon. The puffed open sleeves fall in sharply-angled folds, while on her glowing bosom a crinkly white shift leaves a generous amount of breast in view. In her hands she holds a book with a ribbon tied around it, perhaps as a love token, unheeding of her attractiveness.

The painting is typical of a large number of half-bust female portraits that were highly sought-after by collectors of the time. In his sensitivity to his subject’s dynamic, sensory qualities Palma betrays the powerful influence of Titian’s work after 1515, which Roberto Longhi felicitously described as “chromatic classicism” (Ballarin 1965; Mariacher 1968, p. 53): distending strong colour fields in the foreground, he gives life to a creature with a soft, dreamy sensuality (Savy 2013). Imbued with a delicate melancholy, the Lyon portrait confirms that painting rivaled poetry, especially Petrarch’s, in the attempt to define and refine the concept of ideal beauty (Attardi 2015). The woman’s seductive beauty is further set off by the dull, uniform darkness of the background, dominating an otherwise narrow space.

Sergio Momesso