|“The Holy Family with Saint Elizabeth and Saint John the Baptist.” © Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden|
This mega-exhibition at the Louvre might better have been called Mantegna & Co., since the works by the Italian master Andrea Mantegna are surrounded by dozens of paintings by his predecessors, contemporaries and successors, firmly placing him in context as a sort of hinge painter between evolving styles.
Andrea Mantegna, born in Padua in 1431, had the distinction of being considered “the best painter in the world” during his lifetime and is probably best known today for his monumental Saint Sebastian (c. 1478-80), which is duly included in this show. The martyr, seemingly oblivious to the many arrows piercing his body, looks as if he might be just an idle youth hanging around on a streetcorner. This painting has many qualities that make it typical of Mantegna’s work: its statuesque figure, Antique ruins, elements of trompe l’œil, attention to perspective and detail, and emotional distance.
Like his master, Francesco Squarcione, Mantegna was a great admirer of classical Antiquity, but his early work also showed the influence of the many prominent artists who passed through Padua, including the sculptor Donatello and the architect Leon Battista Alberti (sculptural forms and architectural elements are characteristic of the work of Mantegna, who incorporated the principles of perspective in his paintings).
After Mantegna married Nicolosia Bellini, the sister of Giovanni Bellini, the two men became close, and Mantegna’s austere style began to show for a while the influence of his brother-in-law, becoming somewhat less austere and more expressive (compare Mantegna’s works with Bellini’s “Le Christ Bénissant,” c. 1459, which shows Jesus looking very human and weak, and his powerful “Pietà,” c. 1480, in which the Virgin holds on to Christ’s body, which is in a sitting position, for dear life). Mantegna’s graceful depiction of Saint Justine of Padua (1453-55) with a dreamy expression is one of the works that demonstrates the influence of Bellini.
Rather than raw emotion, Mantegna’s works tend to communicate a kind of dignified elegance. Even Christ’s body on the cross in a crucifixion scene painted in 1456-59 remains rigid, with no hint of slumping, which would convey suffering or weakness.
Some of the most beautiful pieces here are the portraits, almost modern in their simplicity. The exhibition also demonstrates the impact of the Flemish masters, especially Rogier van der Weyden, on Mantegna’s work, which can be seen in the great attention to detail. Among the other major works by the artist included in the show are the predella of the triptych painted for San Zeno in Verona and the monumental mythological paintings made for the studiolo of Isabella d’Este, one of the great art patrons of the time.
In 1460, Mantegna became court painter in Mantua, a position he held for many years, but toward the end of his life, his work went out of style. Isabella d’Este considered him old-fashioned in comparison with younger artists like Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, who were introducing a more modern style (you can understand why she felt this way when you turn a corner and see a drawing of her by da Vinci that is bursting with life; the contrast with Mantegna’s lofty severity is striking), and she eventually replaced him as court painter by Lorenzo Costa. Mantegna accordingly adapted his style, which became softer and more expressive, as in a portrayal of the Holy Family painted between 1500 and 1505 in which the Virgin smiles and Saint Elizabeth looks tenderly at the Christ child.
By the end of this expansive, scholarly exhibition, you will not only have a strong feeling for the work of Mantegna as part of one of the most effervescent periods in the history of art, but you will also have seen scores of great Italian paintings, many of them from the collection of the Louvre and other French museums. This is an exhibition that requires more than one visit to be fully absorbed.
Musée du Louvre: Hall Napoléon. Métro: Palais-Royal/Musée du Louvre. Tel.: 01 40 20 53 17. Open Wednesday-Monday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (until 10 p.m. on Wednesday and Friday). Admission: €9.50. Through January 5. www.louvre.fr
© 2009 Paris Update
Reader Joe Wright writes: “Seeing the article on the Mantegna exhibition in the Louvre has fully justified my request to be included on your e-mail list, but also fired up my enthusiasm for seeing his works once more following a visit I made to Mantua in 2003 where I viewed his brilliant frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi in the Palazzo Ducale. [I also visited his tomb in the nearby Duomo]. I also saw more of his work in the Museo Franchetti in the Ca’D’Oro in Venice last year and can’t wait to see the San Sebastian painting which was being cleaned at the time. Well done!”
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