Maddona of the Trees
GIOVANNI BELLINI was a man of uncommonly good sense and reasonableness.
Nothmg failed to excite him but he was never excited immoderately; he was
incapable of the tragic passions but he was above violence and banality. As
painter to the state, he was never perfunctory, and in his use of light and color
to bind his forms together into a harmony of tones,
he anticipated Rembrandt.
As artist and practitioner, he was serenely prosperous from youth to extreme
old age, and when the scheming Titian attempted to obtain his official post, he
was annoyed but not vindictive.
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Trained in the Paduan school, Bellini matured slowly, painting durmg his
first period in the old tempera method with the hard draftsmanship of his,
WIth his gradual mastery of the oil medium intr~:’.
duced in Venice by Antonello da Messina, in 1473, he developed his own style,
softening the outlines of his drawing and increasing the scope and richness of
his color; in short, defining the tendency of the Venetian school.
With the ex
ception of the early and rather mediocre work of the guilds, religious painting
had never been very marked in Venice; but Bellini revived and nurtured this
branch of art and became Its greatest, if not its only exemplar.
Beginning with his sixtieth year, his humanity tempered by many successful
tilts with life, wise, tolerant, benign, and not unmindful of the surrounding
splendor, he painted a long succession of Madonnas, many of which, circulat
ing in the form of villainously colored postal cards, have repelled a critical
public unacquainted with the originals.
These half-length Virgins, of which the
Madonna of the Trees is perhaps the finest specimen, differ but slightly in pos
ture and expression.
The wonder is that Bellini could have maintained such
uniformity of craft and inspiration in painting so many of them. It was a sacred
obligation-a point of honor as artist and churchman-and he created a new
type of Madonna, one of the rarest achievements in art.
They are all sisters,
neither mystical nor deeply affecting, but self-possessed, delicately sweetened,
and splendidly Venetian without being luxurious or worldly.
Much of their
distinction must be attributed to their color, a fusion of reds, greens, and blues
with subtle distributions of light. Bellini, whom Durer, in 1506, pronounced
“the grand old man of art, and the best and most courteous painter in Venice,”
painted and repainted a young
Venetian woman, and finally arrived at an ideal
that satisfied his conception of the Madonna.