This is one of the very rare surviving works by the founder of the outstanding dynasty of painters in fifteenth-century Venice who also played a crucial role in the introduction of Renaissance style to the city. Jacopo was a pupil of Gentile da Fabriano and almost certainly worked with him in Florence between 1420 and 1424. There he had occasion to study first hand the work of Masolino and Masaccio, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Donatello. His two sons, Gentile (named after his master) and Giovanni, were the key Venetian painters of the next generation and his son-in-law, Andrea Mantegna, dominated painting in north Italy. From the outset Jacopo’s art was informed by his awareness of Florentine sculpture: a series of apostles standing in shell niches (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) shows close affinities with Pietro di Niccolò Lamberti’s work on the tomb of Doge Tommaso Mocenigo in Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice. But it also shows a refined naturalism derived both from his master, Gentile da Fabriano, and from Pisanello, whose work he knew in Venice, Verona, and Ferrara, where the two competed in 1440 to paint the portrait of Lionello d’Este (Jacopo was deemed the winner). In addition to prestigious private commissions, Jacopo established a busy workshop that produced decorations for local confraternities as well as devotional paintings of the Madonna and Child, none of which are dated. The Met's must be more or less contemporary with an altarpiece of the Annunciation that was sent to Brescia in 1444 (church of Sant’Alessandro, Brescia); a roughly contemporary painting of the Madonna and Child is in the Accademia, Venice. The simple, straightforward compositions and touchingly affective humanity of these works open a new chapter in the history of Venetian painting. Jacopo’s later work shows a mounting interest in the sculpture of Donatello, who worked in Padua between 1443 and 1453 (see, in particular, Jacopo’s Madonna and Child
in the Los Angeles County Museum, the composition of which was copied from a marble by Donatello), as well as his careful study of the work of Andrea Mantegna. A Madonna and Child
in the Uffizi, Florence, documents this later phase, which established the basis for the early work of Giovanni Bellini (see 30.95.256
Most of Jacopo’s paintings have come down to us in compromised condition and this is also true of The Met’s picture, which was the victim of a strong over-cleaning in the distant past. Little remains of the flesh tones (most of the modeling is due to the preparatory underdrawing showing through); the red drapery has lost all form and the blue of the veil has darkened. The child was audaciously shown in a transparent chemise, now barely legible. The borders of the Virgin’s dress were inscribed in Gothic letters with verses—as in the work of Gentile da Fabriano. The haloes, with their elaborate decoration, are typical of Venitian Gothic painting, as is the original frame, which, unlike Florentine frames, is not attached to the panel and thus is frequently omitted in reproductions. There is a candle burn in the Virgin’s left arm—an indication of the picture's function as a devotional work for a domestic setting.
Keith Christiansen 2014