The art of Correggio was very justly summed up by his first biographer, Vasari. After pointing out that in the matter of drawing and composition the artist would scarcely have won a reputation, the writer goes on to say: "To Correggio belongs the great praise of having attained the highest point of perfection in coloring, whether his works were executed in oil or in fresco." In another place he writes, "No artist has handled the colors more effectually than himself, nor has any painted with a more charming manner or given a more perfect relief to his figures." Color and chiaroscuro were undoubtedly, as Vasari indicates, the two features of his art in which Correggio achieved his highest triumphs, and if some others had equalled or even surpassed him in the first point, none before him had ever solved so completely the problems of light and shadow.

Not only did he understand how to throw the separate figures of the picture into relief, giving them actual bodily existence, but he mastered as well the disposition of light and shade in the whole composition. To quote Burckhardt, "In Correggio first, chiaroscuro becomes essential to the general expression of a pictorially combined whole; the stream of lights and reflections gives exactly the right expression to the special moment in nature."

The quality of Correggio's artistic temperament was essentially joyous.[1] The beings of his creation delight in life and movement; their faces are wreathed with perpetual smiles. Hence childhood and youth were the painter's favorite subjects. The subtleties of character study did not interest him; and for this reason he failed in representing old age. He was perhaps at his best among that race of sprites which his own imagination invented, creatures without a sense of responsibility, glad merely to be alive.

[1] Tradition says that the temperament of the man himself was exactly the reverse of that of the artist, being timid and melancholy.

This temperament explains why the artist contented himself with so little variety in his types. We need not wonder at the monotony of the Madonna's face. She is happy, and this is all the painter required of her psychically. He took no thought even to make her beautiful: the tribute he offered her was the technical excellence of his art,—the exquisite color with which he painted flesh and drapery, the modulations of light playing over cheek and neck. With hair and hands he took especial pains, and these features often redeem otherwise unattractive figures.

In his predilection for happy subjects Correggio reminds us of Raphael. The two men shrank equally from the painful. But where the Umbrian's ideal of happiness was tranquil and serene, Correggio's was exuberant and ecstatic. Raphael indeed was almost Greek in his sense of repose, while Correggio had a passion for motion. "He divines, knows and paints the finest movements of nervous life," says Burckhardt.

Even when he sought to portray a figure in stable equilibrium, he unwittingly gave it a wavering pose; witness the insecurity of Joseph in the Madonna della Scodella, and of St. Jerome in the Madonna bearing his name. Usually he preferred some momentary attitude caught in the midst of action. In this characteristic the painter was allied to Michelangelo, the keynote of whose art is action.

It is a curious fact that two artists of such opposed natures—the one so light-hearted, the other burdened with the prophet's spirit—should have so much in common in their decorative methods. Both understood the decorative value of the nude, and found their supreme delight in bodily motion. In a common zeal for exploiting the manifold possibilities of the human figure, the two fell into similar errors of exaggeration. In point of design Correggio cannot be compared with Michelangelo. He was utterly incapable of the sweeping lines characteristic of the great Florentine. He seldom achieved any success in the flow of drapery, and often his disposition of folds is very clumsy.

It is interesting to fancy what Correggio's art might have been had he been free to choose his own subjects. Limited, as he was, in his most important commissions, to the well-worn cycle of ecclesiastical themes, he could not work out all the possibilities of his genius. Nevertheless, he infused into the old themes an altogether new spirit, the spirit of his own individuality. It is a spirit which we call distinctly modern, yet it is as old as paganism.

Among the works of the old Italian masters, Correggio's art is so anomalous that it has inevitably called forth detractors. What to his admirers is mere childlike sweetness is condemned as "sentimentality," innocent playfulness as "frivolity," exuberance of vitality as "sensuality." Certainly there is nothing didactic in his art. "Space and light and motion were what Antonio Allegri of Correggio most longed to express,"[2] and to these aims he subordinated all motives of spiritual significance. One of his severest critics (Burckhardt) has conceded that "he is the first to represent entirely and completely the reality of genuine nature." He, then, who is a lover of genuine nature in her most subtle beauties of "space and light and motion," cannot fail to delight in Correggio.

[2] E. H. Blashfield in Italian Cities.