“Giovanni Bellini: Crossed Influences” at the Musée Jacquemart-André appears to be the first show in France to present Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1435–1516).1 It is surprising that there have not been earlier shows here about this key figure of the Italian Renaissance. Bellini was the Republic of Venice’s official painter. In La Serenissima, he ran a prestigious workshop where he acted as a mentor to the mysterious Giorgione (1477–1510) and Titian (ca. 1488–1576), giants of the High Renaissance’s Venetian branch. Billed as the focus of the exhibition, Bellini’s “undiminished power of absorption”—in the words of Kenneth Clark in his book The Nude (1956)—allowed him to learn from younger artists even as they learned from him.
Bellini’s malleability as an artist gives the exhibition its theme and subtitle. Bellini has long been thought the illegitimate son of the painter Jacopo Bellini (ca. 1400–70), though this assumption has been disputed. Whatever his exact place in the Bellini family, Giovanni grew up in Jacopo’s household and as a boy apprenticed in Jacopo’s studio with his brother Gentile Bellini (ca. 1429–1507), of whom there is no doubt that he was Jacopo’s son and named after Jacopo’s master, Gentile da Fabriano (ca. 1370–1427). Jacopo, working in the elegant, poetical style now known as “International Gothic,” was fascinated by what he heard about innovations appearing in Florence. Jacopo’s Virgin of Humility Adored by a Prince of the House of Este (ca. 1434–40) with its enchanted garden and background of castles and desert mountains here gives an idea of the father’s work. The exhibition includes two paintings, attributed to Giovanni and Gentile circa 1453, who were then both working in Jacopo’s studio: Birth of the Virgin and Annunciation. Both are interior scenes, though the second picture has a window with a landscape, and both clearly show Jacopo’s influence. Another Annunciation, this one entirely Gentile’s (ca. 1475), is dominated by dazzling architecture. Several iterations of the Virgin and Child (Giovanni became Venice’s leading painter of the subject) are in the exhibition’s section called “Paduan models.”
In the 1550s, Giovanni learned from the painter Andrea Mantegna (ca. 1431–1506), who married Bellini’s sister. Mantegna started his life in Padua (close to Venice), and there he studied at Francesco Squarcione’s school for artists, which attracted painters from all over Italy. Squarcione based his teaching on ancient Roman art and hence included the study of Latin in the curriculum. As a result, Mantegna rejected Gothic models and based figures in his painting on classical sculptures. The exhibition includes Mantegna’s Virgin and Child Between Saint Jerome and Saint Louis of Toulouse (ca. 1455)—a painting in the Jacquemart-André’s permanent collection—and a polychromatic statue after Donatello of the Virgin and Child or The Virgin of Verona (ca. 1450–53) next to Bellini’s versions of the Virgin and Child from ca. 1457–58, ca. 1460, ca. 1475 and ca. 1475–80. Bellini’s painting of Saint Justina (ca. 1475), a patron saint of Padua, shows he had assimilated Mantegna’s technique in depicting the human form in a realistic fashion, though with his own style: Bellini’s poetical gentleness and fluidity differ from Mantegna’s rough-hewn viscerality. Saint Justina, chaste as she is, has a real body under her clothes, even if the dagger stuck into her is less than believable as it leaves no sign of blood. Of course, such pristine effects may be normal with saints as opposed to less-exalted mortals.
The exhibition illustrates the Byzantine and Northern European influences on Bellini. After the Byzantine capital of Constantinople was overrun by the Ottomans in 1453, Venice—whose Crusader forces had earlier pillaged the city in 1204—accepted refugees who brought with them icons, relics, and manuscripts. Bellini’s Virgin and Childs from circa 1452–53, 1475, and 1485 show golden backgrounds in the Byzantine style, though his faces show an Italian sweetness rather than the somber rigidity seen in Byzantine iconography. At the time, Venice was a great international port, and it was likely that Bellini saw paintings by Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling from Bruges, Venice’s counterpart in Flanders. A highlight of the exhibition is a side-by-side of Memling’s Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Celestial Redemption (ca. 1485) and Bellini’s Five Allegories (ca. 1490–95). The variations on what is essentially the same theme contrast the lushness of Venetian art with Memling’s more homespun austerity. The catalogue informs us that the first panel in Bellini’s Allegories inspired Dürer’s Melencolia I (1514), one of the printmaker’s Meisterstiche. Dürer was impressed in 1506 to find Bellini “very old” but still “the best in painting” and gave his warmth to the visiting, foreign painter.
Bellini began using oil paint in his work, a technique that he brought to northern Italy through his friendship with Antonello da Messina (1430–79), who arrived in Venice from Sicily in 1475. Da Messina had realized that oil better illuminated his paintings. His Portrait of a Young Man (ca. 1475–79) is warily pensive in contrast to another Portrait of a Young Man (ca. 1475), formerly attributed to Antonello but now to Bellini, whose youth mixes self-confidence with a certain suspicion expressed in the painting.
The exhibition’s beguiling “Landscapes: Between Dream and Reality” section combines later Virgin and Childs by Bellini with work by his protégés, Cima da Conegliano (1459–1517) and Giorgione. Giorgione’s elusive Tempest (ca. 1508) has been called the first landscape in Western painting, but Bellini had been painting landscapes to create a sense of mood before Giorgione was born. A Virgin and Child (ca. 1500), now attributed to Giorgione, differs from Bellini’s characteristic blue skies with a misty background featuring a single tower. Virgin and Child on a Throne (ca. 1510–15), described in the catalogue as one of the most enigmatic works in the Jacquemart-André’s collection, is attributed to Bellini and his workshop. The throne is massive with a curtain and a darkening sky in the background. The Mocking of Noah (ca. 1515), the only known Bellini picture of a scene from the Old Testament, shows that the Old Master was still developing his style as he approached the end of his life. The only awkwardness is Noah’s folded arm, which seems detached from him.
As with the works on display in the Jacquemart-André’s recent Botticelli exhibition, which I reviewed in The New Criterion’s January 2022 issue and which lacked Botticelli’s most celebrated masterpieces, some of Bellini’s more famous paintings are now absent. There are nevertheless enough gems by the artist and those he influenced to make “Giovanni Bellini: Crossed Influences” a luminous and instructive exhibition.