Giovanni Bellini was the greatest Venetian painter of the early Renaissance. He was born into a family of artists, and transformed Venetian painting through the development of light, creating a new and serene luminosity made possible by the adoption of oil painting, introduced into Italy by Antonello da Messina (ca. 1430–79). Now paint could be built up in layers, called glazes, to produce more vivid effects of transparency and atmosphere. Bellini's immediate successor was Giorgione (1477–1510) who adapted his mellow atmospheric effects to a more relaxed and humanistic high renaissance style.
Bellini's early paintings are much influenced by his brother in law Mantegna (ca. 1431–1506). Mantegna, who painted in the traditional dry tempera technique, venerated the stony art of antiquity, which he felt he could never quite surpass. Bellini in his Agony in the Garden and even more in his Transfiguration broke free of this obsession in favor of an enveloping and more naturalistic luminosity. In his Vision of St Francis in the Frick Collection, New York, probably inspired by St Francis' poem the Canticle of the Sun, sunlight is identified with divine radiance. In public commissions, Bellini executed a series of paintings for the Doge's Palace, destroyed in the fire of 1577, while on a smaller scale he achieved great popularity with images of the Madonna and Child. Some are of high quality; others show studio participation though signed by Bellini. In altarpieces for Venetian churches, Bellini's stylistic progress can be clearly followed between the San Giobbe altarpiece (1478) now in the Accademia, Venice and his San Zaccaria altar (1505), still in situ in the church. In the earlier work, the Virgin and saints are grandiosely deployed in a kind of chapel decorated with a mosaic like those in the Basilica San Marco. They seem to pay little attention to each other but in the San Zaccaria altar the atmosphere is softer, even slightly humid as one finds it in Venice, creating a greater feeling of intimacy and communion. The change is partly due to Giorgione whose example also accounts for the less regal and more tender Madonna and Child. After his death in 1516, Titian (ca. 1485/90–1576) took over Bellini's role as caposcuola and updated his Feast of the Gods, today in the National Gallery of Art, Washington. Bellini was also a celebrated portraitist and some, in their incisive character and bourgeois modesty, recall the Flemish master Memling, whose portraits were popular in Italy.
Top Auction Results for Giovanni Bellini
The Madonna and Child in a landscape
Sold for £3,513,250 ($5,320,526)
London, Christie’s, 6 July 2010, Old Master & 19th Century Paintings, Drawings & Watercolours Evening, lot 36
The Madonna and Child with a male donor
Sold for £826,500 ($1,372,239)
London, Christie’s, 13 December 1996, Important Old Master Pictures, lot 109
Christ carrying the Cross
Sold for £795,000 ($1,040,848)
London, Sotheby’s, 4 December 2019, Old Masters Evening Sale, lot 5