Correggio was a painter and a poet at the same time, interpreting Nature, flattering her, idealizing her, and realizing her creations in their double æsthetic expression, with undulating outlines and tender tones. His drawing was modelled and supple, with a certain vigour of line and a certain solidity of relief. He had a charming imagination of conception and a voluptuous grace in its accomplishment, which are requisites in the painting of women and children. He therefore excelled in rendering bambini. With a note-book in his hand, he studied them everywhere. This explains why his Loves and his Cherubs have such rare truth of mien, of flesh, and of life. His knowledge of anatomy is great and he foreshortens on canvas and ceiling astonishingly before the advent of Michael Angelo. His enchanting colouring, impasted like that of Giorgione, vivid as that of Titian, ran through the most delicate gradations and melted into the most elusive harmonies. Beneath his facile brush, soft and thick, the transparencies of the skin and the morbidezza of the flesh become ideal.

He was the first to apply himself to the choice of fabrics, and one of the first in Italy to attend to the scientific distribution of light. But, in the famous chiaroscuro he does not get his effects by contrasts, but by analogies, superimposing shadow upon shadow and light upon light, both being disposed in large masses and graduated in progression. This process occurs at its fullest in the Christmas Night, where the moon shines, and the child glows with radiance, in a kind of symbolic struggle between the natural light of this world and the supernatural light of the other. The effect is such that the spectator is forced instinctively to blink his eyes, as does the Shepherdess herself entering the stable.

"When Correggio excels he is a painter worthy of Athens," wrote Diderot, whose art criticism had in it more of sentiment than knowledge.

"With Correggio everything is large and graceful," said Louis Carrache, who gave Correggio a large place in his eclecticism. But after studying and weighing everything, from his somewhat excessive qualities it follows that Correggio was more of an idealist than a mystic and obeyed Art more than Faith, with a leaning towards the apotheosis of form. He painted Io and Jupiter for Frederick Gonzaga of Mantua. This picture having passed to the son of the Regent, the two passionate heads so strongly troubled his prudery that he cut them out and burned them. Coypel then begged the Prince to spare the rest and to give it to him. He obtained it on condition that "he would make good use of it," and on the death of Coypel, M. Pasquier, député du Commerce de Rouen, paid 16,500 livres for the mutilated remains, as I find in a very old account.

Magdalen. Correggio


All the great museums of the world possess Correggios, and I will only mention the exquisite Saint Catherine and the resplendent Antiope of the Louvre; the Danaë of the Borghese Gallery, a chef-d'œuvreof grace and delicacy; and, finally, in the Dresden Gallery, our Magdalen in the Desert, that jewel so well-known and so often reproduced.

This Magdalen as a matter of fact holds the first place among the small Correggios. There are two kinds of Magdalens in art: I. the Repentant, emaciated, growing ugly, disfigured by tears and penitence at the end of her life, with a skull in her hand or before her eyes, not having had even—like the one sculptured in the Cathedral of Rouen—"for three times ten winters any other vesture than her long hair," according to Petrarch's verse; II. the Sinner, always young, always beautiful, always seductive, who has not lost any of her charms nor even of her coquetry, and with whom the Book of Life takes the place of the Death's Head.

Our Magdalen belongs to the latter class. In a solitary spot, but attractive with its verdure and rocks, on a grassy knoll the saint is stretched out at full length, with her shoulder, her bosom, her arms, and her feet adorably bare. A blue fabric drapes the rest of her body and forms a coquettish hood for her head and neck. Her flesh has a robust elegance of line. Leaning on her right elbow, her hand, half hidden in her hair, supports a charming and meditative head, while her other arm is slipped under an open manuscript. Her hair, long and blonde, according to legend—which she loves and still cares for because it once wiped the feet of her Saviour—falls in thick curls, or strays at will with a premeditated abandon. On the ground, to her right, stands the vase of perfumes of her first adoration; to the left are the stones of her supreme expiation.

What grace in her attitude! What beauty of form! She is thrown in with a rare happiness and painted with an exquisite delicacy of touch and tint. The blue drapery upon the green landscape defines her sufficiently without making her stand out too much, leaving the figure and the landscape to mingle without disturbing each other in skilful harmony. All of this is in most finished execution, a little elaborate, perhaps, and the expression of the face reflects the sweet, sad memory of the Beloved, whose Gospels she is reading, just as one reads again tender letters of the past.

This work was executed for the Dukes of Este, who kept it in a silver frame studded with precious stones and used it as an ornament for their bedrooms, and when they travelled, they took it with them in a casket. When the King of Poland became its possessor, he gave it a second boxing of glass with lock and key. In 1788, this masterpiece having been stolen, 1,000 ducats were promised for its discovery, and, in consideration of that sum, the thief denounced himself. Cristofano Allori, the greatest Florentine painter of the Decadence, made a superb copy for the Offices, I believe.

This Magdalen of Correggio's, "the least converted of sinners and the most adorable of penitents," is she really, historically and liturgically the Magdalen of the House of Bethany, of the grotto de la Sainte-Baume in Provence? No. She recalls rather "cette dame de marque" who was evoked in the Seventeenth Century by the Carmelite Father Pierre de Saint-Louis in his sublime poem of accomplished burlesque; and does not the following verse hum in your ear:

"Lèvres dont l'incarnat faisant voir à la fois
Un rosier sans épine, un chapelet sans croix,"

while the sinner

" ... s'occupe à punir le forfait
De son temps prétérit qui ne fut qu'imparfait"?

This evidently is not at all the art of the Middle Ages, nor its saints, whose vestment was sackcloth and whose body was a mere lay figure for a soul devoted entirely to purity, to simplicity, to mysticism, and to the other world. In the Sixteenth Century, however, people took the sackcloth from the saints and dressed them in flesh. Then was produced a kind of revival of paganism, of naturalism, of life; and religious art, in its flesh and colouring, no longer created anything but an Olympus of beautiful maidens, or, at least, noble goddesses. Correggio's Magdalen belongs to this artistic cycle and the painter executed it in the noonday splendour of those qualities, the dawn of which glows in Parma at St. Paul's. Correggio is not a mystic, he is a voluptuous naturalist, and from him to the realist Caravaggio, "the grinder of flesh," and the exuberant Rubens, who gave much study to Correggio, the distance is not very great and the decline is fatal. But, in the meantime, where shall we find more grace, or seductiveness—under this conversion complicated with memories—than in Correggio's Magdalen?

In hagiographal literature we find a work of similar tone and charm: Marie Madeleine, by P. Lacordaire, an exquisite little book written with tenderness and piety, which deliciously calls up before us the Magdalen of repentance and love, "the loving woman accustomed to the delights of contemplation and needing only to see in her heart him whom in other days she saw under the transparent veil of mortal flesh."

It must be confessed that Correggio was constantly preoccupied with charm and with that skilful coquetry that sports with every grace. This is a subtlety of purely personal qualities; but let others beware of a systematic affectation! In this way Correggio did not found a school, but he had imitators, among whom was Parmigiano, who by dint of study and in search for grace—the most natural thing in the world—most often fell into affected and conventional ways.

Jouin, Chefs-d'œuvre: Peinture, Sculpture, Architecture (Paris, 1895-7).