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The most influential painter you’ve never heard of

Bellini, Doge of Venicemay be Gio­vanni Bellini. He lived a very long and pro­duc­tive life, from about 1426 to 1516, dur­ing a time of enor­mous changes in Ital­ian Renais­sance paint­ing. Many of his fam­ily were excel­lent painters them­selves, includ­ing his father Jacopo, his brother Gen­tile, and his brother in law Andrea de Man­tegna. In his early career he painted with the tra­di­tional medium of egg tem­pera, in the early Renais­sance tra­di­tion. In the 1470’s, how­ever, he began to paint in oil. Ital­ians at the time were mostly try­ing to fig­ure out how the Flem­ish painters did such amaz­ing things with oil paint; much of their work was deriv­a­tive. But Bellini, over time, began to use oil paint as a means of ren­der­ing light and shade in a new way. His explo­rations of light, color, and air were inno­v­a­tive. In essence, he cre­ated the Venet­ian style of paint­ing. It empha­sized such “mod­ern” oil paint­ing approaches as a pref­er­ence for paint­ing on can­vas, much larger paint­ings, the use of toned rather than white grounds, lit­tle or no use of egg binders, less use of dis­crete lay­er­ing (i.e., more direct, wet into wet paint­ing), the devel­op­ment of the com­po­si­tion in the paint­ing stage rather than paint­ing within the lines defined by an under­draw­ing, the use of built-up paint (impasto) in com­bi­na­tion with glaz­ing to rep­re­sent tex­ture and form, thick lights and thin darks, the sys­tem­atic use of hard, soft, and lost edges to describe form, and a gen­er­ally looser appli­ca­tion of paint.

The Venet­ian style became the pri­mary style of oil paint­ing, through­out Europe, for cen­turies; it encom­passes a lot of oil paint­ing even today. He is not the only one who con­tributed to the devel­op­ment of this style, but his were the core inno­va­tions. His stu­dents, Tit­ian and Gior­gione, con­tin­ued to develop and expand on the ideas he had invented. It can be said that Rem­brandt, Car­rav­a­gio, Rubens, Velazquez, and pretty much every impor­tant painter up until the Impres­sion­ists, were painters in the Venet­ian style, devel­op­ing and extrap­o­lat­ing on meth­ods first intro­duced by Gio­vanni Bellini. And even impres­sion­ism could be said to be a log­i­cal exten­sion and mod­i­fi­ca­tion of the Venet­ian style using a more mod­ern palette of col­ors. So it’s def­i­nitely worth check­ing out his work.

Posted in art history, art technique, artists, oil painting, painting, tempera.

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  1. Jeff Hayes says

    One of my favorite paintings.

  2. Art Framing Supplies says

    Great post, I really enjoyed it. I will have to book­mark this site for later.

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