Giovanni Bellini

Special thanks to the Microsoft Corporation for permission to use following biographical information from Microsoft® Encarta '97:

Giovanni Bellini was a Venetian painter who was the presiding genius of early Renaissance painting in Venice, and an artist of world rank. He was the son of Jacopo and (probably younger) brother of Gentile Bellini.

Born in Venice, Giovanni Bellini began as an assistant in his father's workshop and continued painting into his mid-80s, gaining steadily in achievement and recognition. His first phase as an artist was strongly influenced by his formidable brother-in-law, the Paduan painter Andrea Mantegna, from whom he took a sculpturesque figure style; a sense for the potential eloquence of contour line; and occasional compositional ideas, as in the early Agony in the Garden (1460s, National Gallery, London). These are, however, infused with Bellini's own subtle perception of color and light, an exceptional sensitivity to the natural landscape, and a human empathy far more direct and tender than Mantegna's.

These personal components of Bellini's style, which became fundamental to the character of Venetian Renaissance painting as a whole, found expanded scope and an altered form in his painting of the 1470s. Flemish painting and, in 1475, Antonello da Messina's paintings, showed Bellini the possibilities of the oil medium, which he used from then on in place of tempera. His color took on added depth, and he explored the interactions of color, light, air, and substance still more fully. As a result, the distinction between solids and space became less clear; air began to mediate between them; contour lines gradually disappeared, to be replaced by transitions of light and shadow. Saint Francis (1480?, Frick Collection, New York City) represents an early stage in this process. The process is well advanced in two dated pictures of the 1480s: Madonna of the Trees (1487, Accademia, Venice) and Madonna with Saints (1488, Church of the Frari, Venice). By about 1500 it had ushered in Bellini's splendid late style.

The Saint Francis also represents an important innovation of Bellini's in these years—paintings in which mood and meaning are conveyed at least as much by landscape as by figures. In the landscapes themselves, he combined a Flemish-inspired minuteness of brilliantly rendered detail with an Italian grasp of general principles as no previous artist had done. Equally significant in setting precedents was a series of monumental altarpieces portraying the Madonna enthroned among saints. In these, figures, space, light, architecture, and sometimes landscape were balanced with seemingly effortless perfection to achieve a complex but harmonious image of serene grandeur. Such paintings as, for example, Madonna with Doge Agostino Barbarigo (1488, Santa Pietro Martire, Murano), are pioneer exemplars of the High Renaissance style.

The latest of the series, Madonna with Saints (1505, San Zaccaria, Venice), typifies Bellini's late style. Complex modulations of color establish a mellow overall tone within which the figures, their surroundings, light, and air seem inseparable—merely different aspects of a single identity. Forms are ample but less dense than before; paint is delicately applied to give their edges and surfaces a hazy indistinctness. The Feast of the Gods (1514, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.), the landscape of which was devised by Titian, shows Bellini, still flexible and inventive in his 80s, turning to classical and pagan subject matter shortly before his death in 1516 in Venice. Bellini's historical importance is immense. In his 65-year evolution as an artist, he brought Venetian painting from provincial backwardness into the forefront of Renaissance and the mainstream of Western art. Moreover, his personal orientations predetermined the special nature of Venice's contribution to that mainstream. These include his luminous colorism, his deep response to the natural world, and his warm humanity.

Home Page Online Since 1996
Back to Bellini Alphabetical
Featured Artists