Madonna and Child, Giovanni Bellini (Italian, Venice, active by 1459–died 1516 Venice), Oil on wood

Madonna and Child

Giovanni Bellini (Italian, Venice, active by 1459–died 1516 Venice)
late 1480s
Oil on wood
35 x 28 in. (88.9 x 71.1 cm)
Credit Line:
Rogers Fund, 1908
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 640
Separated from our everyday world by a parapet, the figures nonetheless engage the viewer with their gazes. A cloth of honor has been pulled aside to reveal a distant landscape, where we witness the transition from dormant to verdant nature—a metaphor, like the dawn sky, for death and rebirth. The asymmetrical composition looks ahead to the work of Titian. When Albrecht Dürer visited Venice, he declared Bellini the best painter. The fine Venetian frame is of the period.

This beautiful and moving picture was acquired in 1908 by one of Bellini’s most eloquent admirers, the great British critic Roger Fry (1866–1934), who was employed by the Museum at the time (see Fry 1908). Despite its exceptional quality it has sometimes been thought to have been painted with workshop assistance (see, for example, Goffen 1989), which seems most unlikely. To judge from the number of works that bear Bellini’s signature or are painted in a style closely related to his, he must have run an extensive, efficient, and busy workshop in which successive generations of artists were tained. However, in most cases a distinct variation in quality is apparent and examination of workshop paintings with infrared reflectography invariably reveals the use of a cartoon or tracing from another work. For example, in the very beautiful Madonna and Child with Saints Paul and George in the Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice, it has been convincingly observed that an assistant painted the central figures of the Madonna and Child from a cartoon or tracing from another work in the same museum, the so-called Madonna degli Alberetti (dated 1487), while the accompanying saints are of higher quality and must be autograph. In another picture, the beautiful Madonna and Child in the Accademia Carrara, Bergamo, the landscape is uncharacteristic of Bellini’s autograph work and is likely to have been painted by an extremely talented assistant. Two works in the Metropolitan Museum offer further evidence of the ways in which Bellini organized his workshop. In a small devotional painting of the Madonna and Child (49.7.2), the landscape, which incorporates features from a well-known painting in the National Gallery, London (the Madonna of the Meadow), is superior to the figures and the picture may well have been the product of a collaboration between two workshop assistants, one of whom was particularly gifted in the painting of landscapes. In another painting (49.7.1)—an imposing picture of the Madonna and Child with saints that must have been a commission of some importance—the painting of the figures varies in quality and examination of the work with infrared reflectography shows a combined use of tracing from a cartoon and free-hand drawing; some of the figures were clearly derived from other compositions by Bellini (for more detailed information, see the relevant online entry). None of these qualitative distinctions pertain to the painting catalogued here, the quality of which is entirely characteristic of Bellini’s finest work. Examination of the picture with infrared reflectography has revealed an extensive, free-hand preparatory drawing, fully modeled, with clear demarcations for those areas intended to be most strongly lit; this type of drawing is typical of Bellini’s autograph works (for a discussion of this drawing and of Bellini’s workshop practice, see Christiansen 2004; and for Bellini’s practice, in general, Giovanni Villa, "L’arte della ricerca, il primato del disegno: ‘L’altra luce’ di Giovanni Bellini," in Giovanni Bellini, exh. cat., Rome, 2008, pp. 39–51).

As noted by Robertson (1968), the treatment of the light is particularly beautiful and the landscape looks ahead to his paintings of the first decade of the sixteenth century. The closest analogies for the figure style are to be found in two altarpieces Bellini painted in 1488: one for the church of the Frari in Venice and the other for S. Pietro Martire, Murano.

The child holds a quince as a symbol of Redemption and the landscape too seems to allude to the theme of death and Resurrection: the trees are barren in the foreground and the fields fallow, while in the background all is green (the effect is somewhat exaggerated as some of the brownish color in the middle ground is due to the copper resonate green having altered with time). The path leading from the town to the barren foreground is a motif found in many of Bellini’s paintings and may be intended to suggest the journey of the life of the soul (on this theme see Augusto Gentili, "Bellini and Landscape," in Peter Humfrey, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Giovanni Bellini, Cambridge, 2004, pp. 167–81).

A later variant of the MMA picture was sold in Genoa in 2013 (formerly Cook collection, Richmond); another is in the Harrach Gallery, Vienna.

[Keith Christiansen 2014]
Inscription: Signed (lower center): IOANNES BELLINVS
[Georges Brauer, Florence, until 1908; sold to MMA]
San Francisco. California Palace of the Legion of Honor. "Venetian Painting," June 25–July 24, 1938, no. 6.

Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. "30 Masterpieces: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 4–November 23, 1947, unnumbered cat.

Iowa City. State University of Iowa, School of Fine Arts. "30 Masterpieces: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," January 9–March 31, 1948, unnumbered cat.

Bloomington. Indiana University. "30 Masterpieces: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," April 18–May 16, 1948, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Venetian Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," May 1–September 2, 1974, no catalogue.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Art in Renaissance Venice, 1400–1515: Paintings and Drawings from the Museum's Collections," November 8, 2011–February 5, 2012, no catalogue.

Roger Fry. Letter to Bryson Burroughs. April 16, 1908, attributes this painting to Giovanni Bellini and dates it 1480–90.

Roger Fry. "A Madonna and Child." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 3 (October 1908), pp. 180–82, ill. p. 179 (front cover), dates it to the late 1470s or early 1480s, noting the use of oil medium and the mountainous landscape indicate a date later than the early 1470s, yet the firm drawing and cool color are characteristic of the artist's early style; compares it to Bellini's Turin Madonna [Galleria Sabauda] from the same period and suggests the same model may have posed for both works, as well as for the "Madonna and Blessing Child" (Accademia, Venice) and "Madonna and Child" (Morelli Collection, Bergamo); mentions a studio variant in the Cook collection and attributes it to Niccolò Rondinello.

E. M. Forster. Diary entry. July 18, 1908, fol. 54r [Forster Papers 14/5, Modern Archive Centre, King's College, Cambridge], records seeing this picture at the Carfax Gallery in London soon after Roger Fry acquired it for the MMA.

Joseph Breck. "Sammlungen: Die Neuerwerbungen des Metropolitan Museum in New York." Der Cicerone 1 (1909), pp. 291–92, ill.

Jean Paul Richter. Letter to Gisela Richter. December 30, 1909, based on a photograph attributes it to Bellini's workshop, despite a signature (with the second "l" elongated) that is characteristic of his autograph works; comments on the presence in this work of features of his early and late style.

Morton H. Bernath. New York und Boston. Leipzig, 1912, p. 76, fig. 78, considers it a work of very good quality done shortly before 1500 in Bellini's shop, under his direction, and perhaps based on a drawing by him.

Tancred Borenius, ed. A History of Painting in North Italy: Venice, Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Ferrara, Milan, Friuli, Brescia, from the Fourteenth to the Sixteenth Century.. By J[oseph]. A[rcher]. Crowe and G[iovanni]. B[attista]. Cavalcaselle. 2nd ed. [1st ed. 1871]. London, 1912, vol. 1, p. 156 n. 2, compares it to the Contarini Madonna (Accademia, Venice) and the Turin Madonna (Galleria Sabauda).

Tancred Borenius. A Catalogue of the Paintings at Doughty House Richmond & Elsewhere in the Collection of Sir Frederick Cook Bt. Vol. 1, Italian Schools. London, 1913, p. 176, no. 149, catalogues the Cook Madonna, which he attributes to Bellini's pupil Rocco Marconi, and notes that it is based on this Madonna, which he ascribes to Bellini; notes that another variant, signed by Basaiti, is in the Harrach Gallery, Vienna (no. 370).

Bernard Berenson. Venetian Painting in America: The Fifteenth Century. New York, 1916, pp. 84–89, fig. 37, dates it about 1483.

Gino Fogolari. "La pittura veneziana in America." Rassegna d'arte antica e moderna 7 (May 1920), p. 125, places it among the "Madonnas of his grand period," along with the Morelli Madonna (Bergamo), the Frari triptych, the Madonna degli Alberetti (Accademia, Venice) and the Wellys [sic for Willys] Madonna (now São Paulo, Brazil).

Georg Gronau. Giovanni Bellini: Des Meisters Gemälde. Stuttgart, 1930, p. 210, ill. p. 118, dates it about 1490 or later, observing the same Madonna type in the San Giobbe altarpiece [Accademia, Venice] and a similar gold-edged mantle in the Willys Madonna [São Paulo, Brazil].

Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 71.

Lionello Venturi. Italian Paintings in America. Vol. 2, Fifteenth Century Renaissance. New York, 1933, unpaginated, pl. 394, dates it about 1490; calls the Cook picture a school version.

George M. Richter. "Conscious and Subconscious Elements in the Creation of Works of Art." Art Bulletin 15 (September 1933), pp. 280–84, fig. 7, considers it an autograph work of Bellini and dates it about 1490; compares the strengths of this original to the weaknesses of the later studio variant in the Cook Collection, perhaps by Niccolò Rondinelli.

Luitpold Dussler. Giovanni Bellini. Frankfurt, 1935, pp. 77, 137, dates it about 1485.

Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. Vol. 17, The Renaissance Painters of Venice. The Hague, 1935, p. 290, fig. 175, dates it between 1485 and 1490 or shortly thereafter.

Carlo Gamba. Giovanni Bellini. Milan, 1937, p. 114, fig. 119, observes a new softness in Bellini's manner apparent in the treatment of the landscape.

Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, pp. 182–83, ill., compare the listening attitude of the Child with that of the Child in a similar painting (Accademia, Venice, no. 612) in which a choir of cherubim hovers overhead; mentions later variants of the picture in the Cook collection, Richmond, and Harrach Gallery, Vienna.

Philip Hendy and Ludwig Goldscheider. Giovanni Bellini. Oxford, 1945, pl. 61.

Luitpold Dussler. Giovanni Bellini. Vienna, 1949, pp. 34–35, 91, pl. 65, dates it about 1490, judging the Cook picture a workshop replica.

Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Venetian School. London, 1957, vol. 1, p. 32.

Fritz Heinemann. Giovanni Bellini e i Belliniani. Venice, [1962], vol. 1, pp. 9–10, no. 37; vol. 2, fig. 67 (overall and detail), dates it tentatively about 1490, arguing that it lacks the grandiosity of the works executed between 1475 and 1480; notes that a copy of our figure group appears in a "Holy Family with Saints" by Vincenzo Catena's workshop (Budapest Museum).

Rodolfo Pallucchini. Giovanni Bellini. London, [1962], pp. 82, 148, fig. 134, dates it in the 1490s; suggests the Cook picture, which is now in a private collection in Switzerland, may be a variant by Bellini.

Stefano Bottari. Tutta la pittura di Giovanni Bellini. Milan, 1963, vol. 1, p. 44, pl. 164, dates it before 1485.

Giles Robertson. Giovanni Bellini. Oxford, 1968, p. 96, pl. 79 b, gives it to Bellini, commenting on its high quality, but places it in the 1490s, when Bellini relied on the workshop for the execution of his designs.

Terisio Pignatti in L'opera completa di Giovanni Bellini. Milan, 1969, p. 99, no. 113, ill., dates it 1485–90.

Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 22, 332, 605.

Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Venetian School. New York, 1973, pp. 4–5, pl. 4, date it close to 1490.

Mirella Levi d'Ancona. The Garden of the Renaissance: Botanical Symbolism in Italian Painting. Florence, 1977, pp. 325, 541, identifies the fruit held by the Child as a quince and writes that here it is symbolic of the Resurrection.

Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, pp. 244–46, fig. 433 (color).

John Pope-Hennessy. "Roger Fry and The Metropolitan Museum of Art." Oxford, China, and Italy: Writings in Honour of Sir Harold Acton on his Eightieth Birthday. Ed. Edward Chaney and Neil Ritchie. London, 1984, pp. 233, 236, notes that Fry had written a book on Bellini, and therefore "approached Bellini with greater confidence than other artists," the result being the purchase of this "beautiful and moving work".

Rona Goffen. Giovanni Bellini. New Haven, 1989, pp. 289, 298 n. 32, p. 299 n. 44, judges it to be painted about 1490 with studio assistance; suggests that the position of the Child is taken from the "Madonna of the Red Cherubs" (Venice, Accademia); notes that it has a highly finished underdrawing which seems to be by Bellini to guide his assistants.

Anchise Tempestini. Giovanni Bellini: catalogo completo dei dipinti. 1992, pp. 179–80, no. 62, ill., considers this painting and the Cook Madonna to be executed by Bellini with the help of his workshop, dates its invention to just after the Frari triptych [1488] and before the "Madonna of the Red Cherubs" [Venice, Accademia].

Jean Paris. L'atelier Bellini. Paris, 1995, p. 204.

Eliot W. Rowlands. The Collections of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: Italian Paintings, 1300–1800. Kansas City, Mo., 1996, p. 121, compares it with the "Madonna and Child" in the Nelson-Atkins Museum and dates it to the early 1480s.

Paul Mitchell and Lynn Roberts. Frameworks: Form, Function & Ornament in European Portrait Frames. London, 1996, p. 42, colorpl. 15 (in frame), describe the frame.

Anchise Tempestini. Giovanni Bellini. Milan, 1997, pp. 214–15, no. 69, ill.

Anchise Tempestini. Giovanni Bellini. Milan, 2000, p. 180, no. 74 (of dipinti autografi), ill.

Keith Christiansen. "Giovanni Bellini e la maniera devota." Da Bellini a Veronese: temi di arte veneta. Ed. Gennaro Toscano and Francesco Valcanover. Venice, 2004, pp. 129–30, pls. 3–5 (overall and infrared reflectogram details) [same text published in English in "Giovanni Bellini and the Art of Devotion," Indianapolis, 2004], discusses the underdrawing.

Keith Christiansen. "Giovanni Bellini and the Practice of Devotional Painting." Giovanni Bellini and the Art of Devotion. Ed. Ronda Kasl. Indianapolis, 2004, pp. 16–17, figs. 12 (color), 13 (detail of infrared reflectogram assembly), and ill. p. 6 (color) [same text published in Italian in "Da Bellini a Veronese: temi di arte veneta," Venice, 2004], discusses the underdrawing.

Andrea Bayer. "North of the Apennines: Sixteenth-Century Italian Painting in Venice and the Veneto." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 63 (Summer 2005), p. 7, fig. 6.

Caroline Elam. "Baldovinetti's View without a Room: E. M. Forster and Roger Fry." Burlington Magazine 149 (January 2007), p. 27, fig. 36, cites E. M. Forster's diary entry of 1908 [see Ref.], where he describes seeing this picture at the Carfax Gallery, London.

Keith Christiansen. "Duccio and the Origins of Western Painting." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 66 (Summer 2008), p. 52, fig. 46 (color), mentions it in a discussion of the development of illusionistic parapets and ledges in paintings.

Oskar Bätschmann. Giovanni Bellini. London, 2008, pp. 81, 83, fig. 72 (color), dates it 1485–90; suggests that similarities between this work and Madonnas in Bergamo and Venice may indicate the use of a cartoon.

Alessandro Ballarin, with the collaboration of Marialucia Menegatti, and Barbara Maria Savy. Leonardo a Milano: Problemi di Leonardismo milanese tra Quattrocento e Cinquecento, Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio prima della Pala Casio. Verona, 2010, vol. 1, pp. 701–2; vol. 2, colorpl. CXXII.

Dipinti antichi/Old Master Paintings. Wannenes, Genoa. March 6, 2013, p. 69, under no. 393, mentions it in the entry for the version formerly in the Cook collection.

Kathryn Calley Galitz. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Masterpiece Paintings. New York, 2016, p. 269, no. 150, ill. pp. 158, 269 (color).

Sarah Ferrari. "Una luce per la natura": studi su Giorgione. Padua, 2016, p. 40, fig. 5 (color).

The frame is Venetian and dates to about 1500 (see Additional Images, figs. 1–4). This water gilded cassetta or box frame, though simple in form, is extravagantly ornamented on its frieze with rounded-end, blue-painted panels at the corners and centers. The scrolling foliate vines are executed using the sgraffito technique by scratching through the paint to reveal the gold surface below. The scrollwork passages in between are carried out in a dragon’s blood transparent glaze and appear reddish in tone. A slight, but clever, reduction in size was carried out on the frieze by cutting at the center blue panels’ curved ends. A slip liner has been added to the sight edge to reinforce earlier damage.

[Timothy Newbery with Cynthia Moyer 2015; further information on this frame can be found in the Department of European Paintings files]