European Art: 14th-16th Centuries

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Portrait of Joerg Fugger, 1474

Giovanni Bellini

Italian, c.1430-1516
Oil on panel
10-1/4 x 7-7/8 in. (26 x 20 cm)
Norton Simon Art Foundation
M.1969.13.P
© Norton Simon Art Foundation

On view

Jeorg Fugger, the heir of a wealthy German banking family, was born in Augsburg in 1453. Depicted here at age 21, he wears in his hair a garland of small blue blossoms, which designates him as a student of ancient learning. This portrait is notable on several accounts: it is the first known portrait by Giovanni Bellini, the greatest Venetian painter of the early Italian Renaissance. It is also one of the first paintings by an Italian artist executed in oil rather than tempera. Further, the portrait’s objective realism departs from the stiff, stylized, late-Gothic tradition of portraiture that then prevailed in Venice.

Bellini’s compositional and stylistic innovations can be traced to a variety of local Italian sources, including his brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna, and his father, Jacopo. He also demonstrates an awareness of the work of a Southern Italian painter, Antonello da Messina, who was himself present in Venice in the mid-1470s. It is unclear whether this latter artist’s work informed Bellini directly, or whether both drew from Northern European influences that were already present in Italy by the mid-fifteenth century. Works by Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes, Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus, Dieric Bouts and Hans Memling were certainly commissioned by Italian patrons and were readily available to Bellini, who, especially in his portraiture, emulated the three-quarter rather than profile view, set against a neutral background or later alla fiamminga, that is, “in the Flemish style,” with sky and landscape. Bellini’s portrait of the young Fugger, who resided in Venice in 1474, when this panel was commissioned, marks the seminal moment that would inform portrait painting, as well as devotional images, in Italy for the next generation of artists such as Raphael, Leonardo, and Fra Bartolomeo who followed in his creative wake.

Until a restoration of the panel was undertaken in the early 20th century, the back of the painting bore this inscription, written in a Venetian dialect: Jeorg Fugger a di XX di Zugno MCCCCLXXIIII [Jeorg Fugger on this day of 20 June 1474].

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