Trained in the humanist university town of Padua, Andrea Mantegna developed a lifelong passion for antiquity that profoundly informed his work as an artist. His incisive drawing, brilliant coloring, and novel spatial effects soon established him as one of the major artists of his day and led to his appointment as court painter to the Gonzaga family in the duchy of Mantua. His famous, frescoed “Camera Picta” in the Ducal Palace was described by a contemporary as “the most beautiful room in the world.”
In the Kimbell’s Madonna and Child with Saints, the figures press forward in the shallow space, a series of diagonals guiding the worshiper’s eye to dwell on the mystery of the Incarnation: the Word made flesh. The triumphant contrapposto pose and figural canon of the Christ Child, which recurs in other works by Mantegna, derives from antique Roman sculpture, which was then being ardently collected.
In this and other devotional paintings Mantegna experimented with distemper, a glue tempera, painted on a fine linen canvas. This delicate technique facilitated the great precision in handling for which the artist was renowned. Mantegna’s thin and exquisitely rendered surfaces are very fragile, and some abrasion has occurred to this work in areas such as the Virgin’s coral-colored robe, which was once embellished with a gold pattern. In some of the best-preserved areas of the painting, such as the head of the young Baptist, the wonder of Mantegna’s extraordinary technique can still be appreciated.
Adult: The Madonna and Child with Saints Joseph, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist
Mantegna often used distemper, a glue-tempera medium, for small devotional pictures such as the Kimbell’s painting. Distemper is generally painted on a fine linen canvas and imparts a matte surface to the painting, similar to pastel. This technique allows for the remarkable precision in handling for which Mantegna is so justly renowned. Very few of Mantegna’s distemper paintings retain their original unvarnished surfaces. Perhaps the best preserved example is Ecce Homo (Musée Jacquemart-André, Paris).
When using other media, such as egg tempera, however, Mantegna would coat the surface with varnish. There has been some discussion about whether the artist used a pure distemper technique of if he added oil to increase the saturation of the colors in The Madonna and Child with Saints Joseph, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist. The painting was given a light coating of varnish in the 1987 restoration, based on visual evidence that the painting was carried out in a mixed oil-distemper medium.
Mantegna’s thin and exquisitely rendered surfaces are very fragile. On close examination of the Kimbell’s picture, it becomes apparent that the Madonna’s coral robe was once embellished with a rippled pattern of gold embroidery that has become abraded with time. A well-preserved example of this type of ornamentation can be seen in the Madonna and Child in the Pinacoteca dell’ Accademia “Carrara,” Bergamo. In some of the best preserved areas of the Kimbell painting, such as the figure of the young Saint John the Baptist, the wonder of Mantegna’s extraordinary technique can still be appreciated.
In Italy, mid-19th century.
Private collection, Marseille, France, by 1909;
by family descent, Marseille, France;
(sale, Sotheby’s, Monaco, 21 June 1986, no. 17);
private collection, Europe;
purchased through (Newhouse Galleries, Inc., New York) by Kimbell Art Foundation, Fort Worth, 1987.