The Art of Giovanni Bellini

The Art of Giovanni Bellini: Very Old, But Still the Best

One of the interesting things about Giovanni Bellini is that he kept learning and improving well into his eighties. This article provides more information about this legendary painter.
The work of Giovanni Bellini, one of the greatest of the Venetian painters, shows a deep fascination with light and color. His paintings display a high degree of realism, and pay close attention to intricate details. His technique is superb. One of the greatest qualities of his was that he never stopped learning - he learned from visiting foreign artists, from his own students - and he kept improving. He painted right into his eighties, and some of his best works are from this period.
Giovanni Bellini did his art apprenticeship in his father Jacopo Bellini's workshop in Venice. The principal style of art then was the Byzantine Icon type of art. Giovanni developed this into a more realistic style. The two painters that principally influenced him in developing a realistic mode of painting were Andrea Mantegna, who was also his brother-in-law, and the Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina. The works of Donatello and other artists from Padua also had an important role in his artistic development.
Andrea Mantegna taught him spatial perspective, and the two of them painted different versions of the same topic 'Agony in the Garden', based on a sketch from Jacopo Bellini's sketchbook.
From Antonello da Messina, Giovanni picked up the technique of Oil Painting. Prior to this, he had mainly worked in Tempera, painting on specially-prepared wood panels. He also learned to pay attention to the details in a painting and stressed more on depicting extremely realistic figures. Oil, he discovered, was a more versatile and convenient medium than Tempera.
He was an intensely-religious man and some of this can be gleaned from his paintings. His favorite subject to paint was Madonna and Child. He did many variations on this theme. He was the first painter who arranged his figures in one single panel and so made their impact more effective; prior to this, religious figures were painted on separate panels.
Although painting religious themes was what he liked to do best, he did not shirk from painting secular paintings and portraits. With the Renaissance right around the corner, there was a growing demand for secular-themed pictures and Giovanni Bellini was a canny enough businessman to sense which way the wind was blowing and adjust himself accordingly. He accepted the lucrative commissions to paint the portraits of the Venetian nobles and politicians, and also painted the rich tourists from other nations who thronged to Venice for its culture and liked to take back a painting or two by way of souvenirs.
One of his best known portraits is that of Leonardo Loredan, the Doge of Venice, painted in 1501 and currently in the National Gallery in London. It is a beautifully delicate and realistic portrait. The color scheme is softly balanced and the modeling is soft, the outlines indistinct. The whole effect is warm, mellow, and lyrical. You can sense the Doge's authority as well as his humanity. The fabric of the Doge's cloak is stunningly depicted.
For all his talent and hard work, however, Giovanni was prone to procrastinating. He was capable of taking as much as two years to complete one painting and this often drove his clients nuts. One of them, Isabelle d'Este, after much pleading and inquiring after the work, even took him to court to get him to finish the commission.
Giovanni's older brother and partner in the art business, Gentile Bellini, died nine years before him. Before his death, he asked Giovanni to finish his incomplete painting 'St. Mark Preaching to the Alexandrians'. However, knowing his younger brother's penchant for delay, he made it a condition for receiving their father's precious sketchbooks. He could get them only if he completed the painting. With this incentive, Giovanni was spurred into completing the project, and in record time too.
After his brother's death, Giovanni succeeded him as the official State Artist of Venice and remained in this lofty position until replaced by Titian.
Titian was one of the many young artists that studied and developed their art in Giovanni's studio. He and another of Giovanni's pupils, Giorgione, went even further than their master and revolutionized Venetian painting.

Some of Bellini's masterpieces are -
The Frari Altarpiece, 1488, Santa Maria dei Frari, Venice
The San Giobbe Altarpiece, 1487-90, Accademia, Venice
Madonna and Child between St. Catherine and St. Mary Magdalene, 1490, Accademia, Venice
The San Zaccaria Altarpiece, 1505, San Zaccaria, Venice

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