The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

All Issues
JUNE 2023 Issue

Giovanni Bellini: Influences croisées

Giovanni Bellini, <em>Virgin and Child on a Throne</em>, c. 1510. Oil on wood panel, 51 ½ x 40 ½ inches. © Culturespaces / Studio Sébert Photographes.
Giovanni Bellini, Virgin and Child on a Throne, c. 1510. Oil on wood panel, 51 ½ x 40 ½ inches. © Culturespaces / Studio Sébert Photographes.
On View
Musée Jacquemart-André
Giovanni Bellini: Influences Croisées
March 3–July 17, 2023
Paris, France

Giovanni Bellini, Influences croisées presents an extraordinary selection of Giovanni Bellini’s paintings alongside those of the Venetian master’s mentors and students, Giorgione among them. “It’s a natural project for the museum because Édouard André (1833–1894) and his wife, Nélie Jacquemart (1841–1912), were great fans of Venetian art and bought many paintings, including a Bellini, for the collection,” said Pierre Curie, Chief Heritage Curator at the Jacquemart-André Museum and co-curator of the exhibit. The exhibition, organized in comfortable rooms that were once living spaces for the nineteenth century French bourgeois, presents art as a mirror of globalization at a time when humanist art and thought reigned.

Giovanni Bellini (1435–1516) plunged into the crosscurrents of this illustrious era as a preteen learning in the workshop of his famed father, Jacopo Bellini (1400–1470). At the time, artists became heroes, their brushes quickened to the spiritual shift from a medieval God-centered view of the world to a Renaissance perspective of human aspiration as a God-inspired endeavor. Giovanni Bellini conveyed humanism as a wholly sensual experience.

The Jacquemart-André provides a perfect opportunity to convene the many influences that sired Bellini’s unique style, from International Gothic, Byzantine art, Northern Netherlandish oil painting, and the Florentine revival of Greco-Roman art. Curie’s meticulously selected pairings of Bellini’s paintings with works by Jacopo and Gentile Bellini, Mantegna, Donatello, Memling, and Messina showcase Giovanni’s ability to absorb what he saw into his own vision, realized through explorations of color and light.

The first exhibition room features works from Jacopo’s workshop, examples of new trends in painting that reflect the early Renaissance challenge to coalesce mortal and divine worlds. For example, in The Annunciation (ca. 1475) by Gentile Bellini, Giovanni’s brother, the artist explores perspective to position the figure within contemporary indoor and outdoor space. He depicts Mary as a fifteenth century woman sitting at home in quiet prayer, enclosed in an outdoor, columned portico. She’s not yet aware of the messenger angel Gabriel who alights before her. He has landed on a building-lined street rendered in deep perspective, a vanishing point carrying the viewer’s eye toward a distant mountainous landscape. A collaborative altarpiece (ca. 1462–63) by Jacopo and Gentile reflects how artists were also experimenting with life-like descriptions of the human body. Gentile’s well-rounded Virgin and Child are poised above a predella containing Jacopo’s characteristic elongated figures in niches, each saint assuming a different posture or gesture.

Gentile Bellini, <em>The Annunciation</em>, c. 1475. Tempera and oil on panel, 52 x 49 inches. © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.
Gentile Bellini, The Annunciation, c. 1475. Tempera and oil on panel, 52 x 49 inches. © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

Giovanni Bellini was also influenced by his new young brother-in-law, the admired Paduan painter Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506). Inspired by the sculptor Donatello (1386–1466), whom he met in Padua, Mantegna sought to portray the figure as sculptural form, and his impact on Bellini is clear in Saint Justina (ca. 1475). Bellini portrays the saint as a monumental statue in contrapposto pose, the movement of a turned leg discerned beneath her robes enlivening the folds of her rose and green-hued garments. But Bellini, ever inventive, replaces Mantegna’s reliance on the sculptor’s incised line with color and light to model the figure. Surrounding Justina within atmospheric space punctuated by billowing clouds afloat in a cool blue sky, Bellini creates palpable illusions to our senses that foreshadow the sensuality associated with Venetian painting.

The exhibition features both Donatello’s Dead Christ (Imago Pietatis) (ca. 1450–53), a small marble relief depicting a half-length figure of Christ rising from a coffin, supported by two angels, and several dazzling Byzantine Virgin and Child icons. These paintings on wood panels proliferated in Venice when Eastern Christians fled Constantinople during the city’s conflicts with the Ottoman Empire. The pairing of such works in this exhibition with Bellini’s paintings reflect the influence of antique sculpture and Byzantine art on his evolving style, particularly his treatment of devotional subject matter purchased by patrons for home worship. His Virgin and Child (1475–80), for example, pays homage to Donatello’s relief figure with a half-length image of Mary who faces the viewer cradling the Christ child in her arms. From the Byzantine icon, he adopts the very tender relationship portrayed between mother and child. But both Donatello’s incised line and the sharp outlines of Byzantine style melt away as skin and fabric in a Bellini painting, gently and naturally defined and divined by light and shadow, are soft enough to touch.

Bellini’s uniqueness lies in his reinventions of ancient and contemporary models, his avoidance of distracting decorative or narrative details, and his focus on the interaction between viewer and subject. This particular Virgin and Child, one of several versions on view, reveals Bellini’s determination to humanize his subject. As in life, no two children are alike: here he represents Christ as a one-year-old innocent bambino sucking on a couple of his fingers. His mother’s somber gaze meets the viewer, connecting mortal life and tragedy with the Lord, held secure in her arms.

Bellini’s evolution also owes a debt to Antonello de Messina (1430–1479), who in 1475 brought to Venice the realistic traditions of Netherlandish oil painting. The pairing of Bellini’s The Dead Christ Supported by Two Angels (ca. 1470–75), worked in tempera and later finished in oil, with Messina’s The Dead Christ Supported by Three Angels (ca. 1476) establishes the impact of oil technique as a vehicle for layering color as light. The Bellini painting infuses the dead Christ with a lifelike presence, the mordant yellows and grays modeling his dying countenance merging with natural golden flesh tones, his limp body still pulsing with life. Like most Bellini works this one encourages the viewer to linger, to acknowledge life and death in a single breath, and to bear witness to the miracle of redemption.

A trio of portraits: Flemish painter Hans Memling’s (1430–1494) The Blessing Christ (ca. 1480–90), Messina’s Portrait of a Young Man (1478) and Bellini’s Portrait of a Young Man Dressed in the Antique (portrait of Mantegna?) (ca. 1475), explain the Venetian fascination with Netherlandish oil technique. All three paintings reverse the earlier tradition of profile portraits to instead turn a palpably more life-like subject toward the viewer. But Bellini’s portrait mesmerizes: the figure’s soft curly locks hold a crown of laurel and frame his expressive face, rendered in subtly blended warm golden and rose skin tones, offset by early evening, gray stubble, and a cleft in his rounded chin. He seduces with intense eye contact. The viewer stays, unable to miss the smoothness of his bare chest partially exposed by the drape of a toga. Curie explained that it was common for artists, musicians, and poets to organize feasts, dressed as Greeks, where they talked and partied all day long.

Giovanni Bellini, <em>Drunkenness of Noah</em>, c. 1513-15. Oil on canvas, 40 ½ x 62 inches. © Besançon, musée des beaux-arts et d'archéologie - Photographie C2RMF Thomas Clot.
Giovanni Bellini, Drunkenness of Noah, c. 1513-15. Oil on canvas, 40 ½ x 62 inches. © Besançon, musée des beaux-arts et d'archéologie - Photographie C2RMF Thomas Clot.

There is no mistaking the eroticism underlying Bellini’s portrait, for it is the unabashed celebration of lust, joy, and human emotion that accounts for the enduring appeal of Venetian art. These elements seamlessly merge in the exhibition’s masterpiece, Mocking of Noah (1515), which has the legendary biblical figure in drunken sleep visually spilling into the viewer’s space. Surrounded by his three sons, two of them laughing, one attempting to cover his father’s nakedness in the landscape, the painting contains the moral message: You can fail even if you’ve saved the world. Many perceive the work as a psychological and physical self-portrait of the aged master who, whatever failings he may have had, earned his legacy as the “Father of Venetian Art.”


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

All Issues