When Albrecht Durer―the German Painter―visited Venice, he met Giovanni Bellini, the leading Venetian Painter of the time. Bellini was then in his eighties, still painting magnificently and still open to learning new techniques and methods from younger painters. He was very kind to Durer, praising him 'highly before several nobles' and commissioning a painting from him, a gesture that no doubt helped the young Durer career-wise. Durer wrote of this meeting "...and they tell me he is a very honest man, so that I am most favorably disposed to him. Though very old he is still the best in painting here."
Giovanni was one of the most widely honored and well-known artists of his time. There is very little information available regarding his early life or even of his life after marriage. He was born around 1430 to Jacopo Bellini, who was a well-established Venetian painter. Giovanni's wife was called Ginerva, and his son was named Alviset.
He had two brothers, Giovanni and Gentile. Gentile, who was also a renowned artist, was the oldest. After their father's death, Gentile became the head of the Bellini family and he is mentioned in the will of his mother, Anna Rinversi of Pesaro. Giovanni, who finds no mention here, is thought to be the illegitimate son of Jacopo and one of his mistresses. Both Giovanni and Gentile trained, as was the custom then, in their father's art workshop and then entered the business under him.
Venice was one of the greatest business centers in the world then, and at the same time it was staunchly religious. It was inevitable that the young Bellini grew up to be an extremely religious man. He frequently mingled with the humanist thinkers and artists from Padua, a University Town that the Bellinis went to for work purposes. It was in Padua that the Bellinis met Donatello and Andreas Mantegna, both of whom influenced their art.
Mantegna―who married Gentile and Giovanni's sister, Niccolosia, in 1453 or 1454―instructed Giovanni in using spatial perspective in his paintings and encouraged him to try his hand at new emerging styles and techniques. He began using bright and luminous color schemes.
Another artist that majorly influenced Bellini was the Sicilian painter, Antonello da Messina, who arrived on the Venetian scene much later in the 1470s. He was an oil painter of a Flemish school, and Giovanni quickly picked up the techniques of using the new media from him and improved his own work.
In 1470 or 1471, shortly after finishing work on the High Altar of the Basilica del Santo in Padua, Jacopo Bellini died, leaving his sons his precious sketchbooks and a flourishing studio. Their brother-in-law, Mantegna, who had lived in Padua for ten years, had moved on by this time to work in the court at Mantua.
In 1474, the Bellini brothers received the important commission of restoring the large and deteriorating wall paintings in the grand hall of the palace of the Doge of Venice. It took them around 35 years to finish this project, and all their work did not to survive in the end. The great hall was destroyed in a fire in 1577.
Around the time they were working on the Doge's palace, Giovanni was invited by the Sultan of Constantinople to come and work in his court. However, as Gentile had succeeded their father as the official state painter of Venice, the officials of the Venetian Republic deemed that he go instead of Giovanni.
Giovanni stayed home and continued working on the Doge's palace. Influenced by Antonello da Messina and responding to the social changes being wrought by the Renaissance, he also set up a successful venture as a painter of secular paintings and portraits. He also continued painting on his favorite religious themes. Three of his masterpieces 'St. Francis', the 'Transfiguration', the great 'San Gioble Altarpiece' were painted during this period. In 1483, he was made official painter of the Venetian Republic.
Giovanni and Isabelle d'Este
In 1493, Giovanni accepted a commission to paint 'A View of Cairo' for Isabelle d'Este, the wife of the ruler of Mantua. Pleased with this work, she asked him to paint a mythological piece for the private studio that she was decorating. Several other artists, including Mantegna, were also employed on this project.
Bellini seemed to have developed a problem with Isabella's dictatorial attitude―he didn't like being told what to paint. He made various excuses―first that he could not compete with Mantegna's brilliant work and so wanted a change of subject―until Isabella agreed to let him paint a religious painting of his own choice. He chose Madonna and Child as usual.
For nearly two years he neglected to paint, and then when he began the work at last, he proceeded at his own pace. Isabella thought he was reneging on their agreement, and took him to court to force him to deliver the work. However, legal threats left Giovanni unruffled and the painting―commissioned in 1501―was delivered in 1504.
It turned out to be worth the wait, however, and the delighted Isabella immediately gave him another commission―something of his own choice.
Bellini continued painting and received commissions well into his eighties. He also took in many young artists as apprentices under him in his workshop. Two of his pupils went on to be great artists―Giorgione and Titian―and transformed Venetian painting.
Giovanni, who never tired of learning and improving his work, kept abreast of new developments in the art field and didn't hesitate to pick up new techniques from his students. Some of his greatest works―'The Madonna of the Meadow' and 'Young Woman with Mirror'―were painted when he was in his eighties.
However, he seemed to have some problems with the very ambitious Titian, who also worked on decorations in the Doge's palace. After first demanding the same privileges as Bellini, he convinced the Venetian officials that he was more competent and reliable than the notoriously procrastinating Bellini. In the end, the aged Bellini was replaced with the young Titian.
Bellini died in 1516, nearly a decade after the deaths of Mantegna (1506) and his brother Gentile (1507).