Bartolomeo Vivarini: Venice’s arch conservative painter

Younger brother of Antonio and uncle of Alvise, Bartolomeo Vivarini was a member of the prominent dynasty of painters in 15th-century Venice that competed for commissions with but didn’t quite match the artistic success of the Bellinis. Working in a conservative style, Bartolomeo was a technically expert painter known for his intense colour palette. He has also been dismissed as an essentially derivative artist who combined different influences but never really developed his own style.

Bartolomeo in time learnt to combine his firm linear outlines and vivid Gothic colours with soft Bellinesque modelling and light effects. This style, superficially up-to-date but fundamentally archaic, allowed him to maintain a large and productive studio which received many important commissions for altarpieces in Venice and the Veneto. But since Bartolomeo never developed artistically beyond this point, his works gradually lapsed into routine and his popularity waned.

Known for a degree of openness to experimentation, Bartolomeo worked with Antonello da Messina and was taught the novel art of oil painting. In 1473 he produced the first known oil painting done in Venice now housed in the basilica of San Zanipolo. But even in this painting as in his other works, the majority of which are in tempera, his colours are bright and his outlines are hard, lending his figures the appearance of three-dimensional sculptures, dignified with devout expressions.

The number of his altarpieces in Venice and the Veneto suggests that Bartolomeo and his workshop came to dominate this market with his multi-paneled works, or polyptychs, whose figures are often set against sweeping gold backgrounds. One of such works, Bartolomeo’s Polyptych with Saint James Major, Madonna and Child and Saints, my favourite, is now part of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. It’s broadly typical of the artist’s sculptural forms, sharp contours and vibrant colours.

One reason for Bartolomeo’s success and possibly for his unwillingness to innovate was Venice’s traditionalism and slow acceptance of new artistic solutions which preserved the Late Gothic form of altar polyptych until late into the 15th century. Bartolomeo’s Gothic tastes, as seen in his wiry saints and his lavish gilding, may not have lasted as long in more progressive cities, such as Florence, but even as Venice began to accept the Renaissance of Giovanni Bellini, Bartolomeo Vivarini wouldn’t.