Last publicly exhibited in 1955, this is the most authoritative version of a Madonna composition that was clearly designed at the end of his career by the greatest Venetian master of the quattrocento, Giovanni Bellini, and although the attribution to him was questioned in the past, partly because this has been relatively inaccessible, there are cogent reasons for believing that the picture is in fact substantially by him.
As has generally been recognised, the face of the Madonna is similar in type to that of the San Zaccaria altarpiece of 1505--a relationship paralleled earlier in Bellini's oeuvre in that between the Murano altarpiece and the Madonna and Child in the Northampton collection. Pallucchini regarded the picture as of after 1510, and thus among Bellini's very last works: he recognised it as 'monumentale' and considered it to be 'caratterizzata dalla complessità dei panneggi intrisi di luce', suggesting that Bellini had felt the 'fascino di Raffaello', noting 'una grandiosità di ritmi e dal tempo stesso una sottigliezza filtrata anche nelle espressioni dei sentimenti'. A remarkable characteristic of the seventy-year-old Bellini was indeed his ability to absorb new ideas and respond to new influences. As a result of the loan to the Fitzwilliam Museum, the picture has recently been studied by Antonio Mazzotta, who argues persuasively that this was executed by Bellini in 1508, the year of the visit of Fra Bartolommeo to Venice, and thus expresses Bellini's response to the Florentine master, who was the decisive influence on the development of Raphael's Madonnas of the preceding years and preceeds the Madonna and Child at Detroit which is dated 1509. Fran Bartolommeo's influence must lie behind the spiralling, almost sculptural, character of the pose, and it is revealing that in the Frate's great altarpiece of the Madonna and Child with Saints Stephen and John the Baptist dated 1509 in the Duomo at Lucca the Child is shown in a similar pose but with his hands clasped. That Fra Bartolommeo was keenly aware of what he saw in Venice is compellingly suggested by the compositional similarities noted by Professor Humfrey (P. Humfrey, 'Fra Bartolommeo, Venice and St Catherine of Siena', The Burlington Magazine, 132, July 1992, p. 478) between the God the Father between Saints Mary Magdalen and Catherine of Siena (Lucca, Museo Nazionale) of 1508, intended for the church of S. Pietro Martire at Murano and Carpaccio's Saint Thomas Aquinas supplied a year earlier for the same church.
More perhaps than in any of his earlier Madonna compositions, Bellini's objective in this panel was to place the Child between the spectator and the Virgin. In this he may have been aware of the example of Leonardo's Madonna of the Yarnwinder, the composition of which implies that the Child is midway between the, by implication kneeling, spectator and the Virgin. Pallucchini fairly commented on the subtle treatment of the drapery. But it is the arresting frontal position of the Child that is the most novel feature of the design: in this Bellini reminds us of the traditional iconography of the Resurrection, emphasising the allusion by placing the Madonna and Child within a sarcophagus, an idea previously developed in the Northampton picture. The head of the Child is also shown frontally in the canvas from the Procuratia di ultra now at Baltimore, which is dated 1510, when it was evidently completed in the studio, but may have been designed about 1505 (F. Zeri, Italian Paintings in the Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1976, I, pp. 228-9).
The language of the landscape is to be characteristic of Bellini's last phase, the four trees, evidently poplars, on the right--their number is charged with religious meaning--echoing for example their counterparts in the London Madonna of the Meadow. At the time of the 1958 exhibition the dead tree to the left of the Virgin was still overpainted to seem like a flourishing sapling. A nineteenth-century restorer or owner must have failed to understand the artist's intention to contrast the flourishing trees on the right with the dead branches which were subsequently revealed and are reliably copied in the early versions of the composition: the illusion would have been as clear to Bellini's contemporaries as his placing of the Madonna within the sarcophagus.
The relative inaccessibility of the picture means that this has not been fully considered in relation to the other Madonnas of Bellini's last phase, all of which, however beautiful, are more conventional in design, and none of which expresses the same interest in physical projection. But while the prominent signature would have been understood by contemporaries to establish the master's personal responsibility for the design, it must have been recognised at the time that almost every work of the period would have been executed with a degree of workshop participation.
The contemporary success of the composition is attested by the survival of at least four versions of this, none of which is signed. The best known, in the sacristy of S. Maria in Trastevere, Rome (Heinemann, no. 61 a, fig. 225), is clearly a shop production. Heinemann tentatively proposed that two others, one first recorded with Dowdeswell, London in 1906 (his no. 61 b, fig. 228), the other owned in 1932 by Dr Georg Kalischer in Munich (his no. 61 c), are by Bellini's gifted pupil, Marco Basaiti: a fourth panel was published in the Bollettino d'Arte, 1908, p. 104 (Heinemann, no. 61 d, fig. 229). All four pictures depend directly on the Fonthill prototype.
The mixed critical fortune of the picture is partly explained by the fact that, since its sale from Dudley House where it had been on regular view, it has only been included in two exhibitions, and the photograph taken at the second, in 1955, does less than justice to its vivacity. While Crowe and Cavalcaselle were remarkably accurate in their appreciation of Bellini's work, the painter's final phase was less accurately charted until after the recognition of the Besançon Noah as late as 1927. In his early lists, Berenson, who dismissed the panel in his pyrotechnic review of the 1894-5 exhibition, assigned to Basaiti a group of pictures that he would later accept as late works by Bellini. He maintained his attribution of the panel to Rocco Marconi, who was perhaps Bellini's most accomplished assistant in his final years, but almost certainly never saw it after the New Gallery exhibition; Heinemann, in qualified terms, followed Berenson's attribution. There is a considerable qualitative gulf between the panel and the admittedly rather later pictures that can confidently be given to Marconi. Waterhouse, who saw the picture in 1955, considered it to be a workshop production, but the view that the picture is very substantially autograph was taken by David Carritt, who studied this subsequently, and the writer, who first examined it in 1974.
The picture is first recorded in the possession of William Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley (1817-1885), who was one of the outstanding English collectors of the mid-nineteenth century, assembling a very significant gallery of pictures at his London residence, Dudley House, Park Lane. Dudley was evidently interested in Renaissance pictures, owning works by such artists as Fra Angelico and Perugino, as well as outstanding panels by Carlo Crivelli. Sir Michael Shaw-Stewart, Bt. (1826-1903) married Lady Octavia Grosvenor, the sixth daughter of the 1st Marquess of Westminster and heiress of Fonthill. They seem to have had a particular empathy for Bellini, as by 1894 they also owned the smaller Madonna and Child from the Beckford and Hamilton collections now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (no. 49.7.2), which is by a close follower of the artist, and in which a castle with towers and curtain walls is also introduced.