The origins, circumstances and artistic leanings of the two great Italian Renaissance painters Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) and Giovanni Bellini (c. 1435-1516) offer a striking study in contrasts. Mantegna, the son of a carpenter, spent his youth and early career in Padua, an ancient university town that traced its roots to antiquity. The city’s vibrant intellectual realm and veneration of the classical tradition found reflection in the rigorous illusionism, monumentality and meticulous sculptural style of his paintings. Conversely, Bellini, the offspring of the celebrated Venetian artist Jacopo Bellini, excelled in depicting infinite, atmospheric landscapes in which his poetic imagery and painterly techniques evoked softer, more emotional responses.
Mantegna and Bellini
The National Gallery
Through Jan. 27, 2019
However, when the former married Giovanni’s half-sister, Nicolosia, in 1453, the two painters entered into a close creative dialogue. As argued in the National Gallery’s persuasive and breathtakingly beautiful “Mantegna and Bellini,” organized by the Gallery’s curators, Caroline Campbell, Dagmar Korbacher and Neville Rowley, and Sarah Vowles of the British Museum, their enduring artistic exchange indelibly marked their own art and that of their contemporaries.
The exhibition, which features over 80 paintings and drawings (including a few by fellow artists), is organized in a thematic and loosely chronological order. Mantegna’s “St. Mark the Evangelist” of c. 1448, painted when he was still in his teens, clearly established the artist as a prodigy. The pensive saint is shown within a fictive stone frame, his elbow and Gospel resting on a sharply foreshortened ledge that, like the cartello (or trompe-l’oeil label) below, became one of Mantegna’s signature elements. The figure’s sculptural mass and deep, perspectival space are offset by delicate highlights in his pearl-encrusted collar and cuff and in the gossamer white threads of his sleeve. Such virtuoso techniques, which draw at once on the illusionistic bas-reliefs of the Florentine sculptor Donatello (who spent a decade in Padua) and Netherlandish painters’ infinitesimal mimetic effects, underscore the breadth of Mantegna’s exposure and range even at an early age.
Hanging nearby, Bellini’s earliest surviving painting, “St. Jerome in the Wilderness” (c. 1453-55), offers a smaller but equally eloquent introduction to his own illustrious career. The hermit saint’s life of penitence in solitary nature, where he was attended by the lion he had famously tamed, made the subject a favorite of the Venetian artist, as it bestowed upon landscape a telling new primacy. The painting, unified by sunlight that bathes its distant expanse and glistens in the foreground on the saint’s tunic and the stony outcropping of his shelter, captures the utter serenity of Jerome’s spiritual state rather than the details of his story.
Some of the show’s most felicitous moments—and there are many—occur when the artists’ competing renditions of a shared theme are juxtaposed, often to stunning effect. Mantegna’s magisterial New Testament image “The Presentation of Christ in the Temple” (c. 1454), for example, depicts in half-length, relief-like format the Holy Family, the elder Simeon and two parenthetical figures (one a possible self-portrait), who fill its featureless and now darkened space to capacity. Breaking through the plane of the picture but retaining its trenchant symmetry, the Virgin rests her elbow on the painting’s illusionistic marble frame. She grasps the tightly swaddled Christ Child, who stands on it as well, drawing us directly into the narrative in a tour-de-force display of the artist’s ability to conjure real and sacred space. In his closely corresponding panel (c. 1470-75)—a transcription (rather than a copy) based on a tracing of the original—Bellini subtly alters his model. By abolishing Mantegna’s inner frame and extending the composition laterally to include more figures, Bellini makes his painting pulsate with life and breathable space, while his fluid brushstrokes offer a gentle corrective to his brother-in-law’s crisp, linear technique.
The decade following Mantegna’s marriage was the period of closest contact between the two artists. Their kindred versions of “The Agony in the Garden,” a scene from Christ’s Passion that they both partially borrowed from a drawing by the elder Jacopo Bellini, suggest the richness of their artistic interchange, and how, at times, it could foster in each a renewed assertion of his own approaches. The expansive new landscape in Mantegna’s painting (c. 1455-56), for example, may pay tribute to Bellini’s mastery of the genre, but the Paduan painter blocks our view with a pile of cold stone slabs that are rife with antiquarian references and microscopic details that allude to the narrative. Likewise, the panel’s somber shadows presage the subject’s inescapable death. Bellini’s painting (c. 1458-60), though somewhat larger in scale, feels truly panoramic in comparison, and its reversed, mirror-like configuration compels us to read the two works together. His empty, sweeping landscape revealed under a spectacular, roseate sky is imbued with a sense of hope as captured in the dawning light of ephemeral atmospheric effects. While the foreshortened sleeping figures in the foreground and even the curving road at right are clearly nods to his brother-in-law, Bellini’s vision is his own.
Mantegna’s move to Mantua in 1460 to work for the court of Ludovico Gonzaga would lessen such points of direct contact, and the two painters’ subsequent works exhibit increasingly independent traits. As admirably sketched out in the show’s final rooms, however, the brilliant effects of their early artistic cross-fertilization never truly disappeared.
—Ms. Lewis teaches art history at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn.