Giovanni Battista Cima was, with his near contemporary Vittore Carpaccio, the youngest of the major painters of the Venetian late quattrocento. His father worked as a cimatore (cloth-shearer) at Conegliano, a market town some 35 miles north of Venice. Dominated by a spectacular hilltop fortress - echoes of which are introduced in a number of Cima's pictures including this panel - Conegliano stands between the fertile level coastal plain and the foothills of the Alps. While the young Titian, brought up in the more distant Cadore, had to travel to the metropolis to study, the quiet prosperity of Conegliano supported a number of minor local painters, and Cima may have been trained by one of these. But at an early age he evidently progressed to Venice; and although he may not have been formally associated with Giovanni Bellini or employed in his busy workshop, he unquestionably studied that master's Venetian altarpieces and also must have known the more intimate Madonnas for which Bellini was - and still is - so justly celebrated. Cima's earliest dated altarpiece, supplied for the church of S. Bartolommeo at Vicenza in 1489 and now in the Museo Civico there, is clearly the work of a master already independent, but conscious of the competition of the gifted local painter Bartolommeo Montagna, who had digested the lessons that Bellini had to offer with particular success. From the outset Cima expressed a wholly personal language of color, cool and clear, and a strong sculptural sense, implying both a knowledge of, and a sympathy with, the work of the Lombardo brothers, then the dominant forces in Venetian sculpture. His classicism was closely attuned to theirs. And while Cima lacked the protean genius or the prodigious visual sensibility of Bellini, he developed, as the 1490s progressed, a pictorial language that was both forceful and independent. Of the great Venetians who achieved maturity before the stylistic revolution forged by Giorgione, the young Titian and the veteran Bellini, none was more consistently accomplished. And none of his Venetian contemporaries quite matches Cima in the self-discipline of his color.
Cima's art has long been admired. The Genevois artist Jean-Etienne Liotard owned his Madonna and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Catherine now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York (P. Humfrey, Cima da Conegliano, Cambridge, 1983, no. 106); and it is not difficult to explain why the greatest of pastellists responded to the tonal harmony and clarity of that panel - which was the first work by the artist to be offered at Christie's (16 April 1774, lot 74). A connoisseur of the following generation, Sir Abraham Hume, who assembled a remarkable collection of works by Venetian renaissance artists, himself attributed the Sacra Conversazione (Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon; Humfrey, no. 61) which he owned to Cima. The artist's stature has been recognised since the mid-nineteenth century and it is surprising that a signed work of the calibre of the present Madonna and Child has, until now, evaded attention.
That Cima's Madonnas were much admired by contemporaries is attested by the number of versions and early copies of these. Thus there are at least ten inferior variants of the damaged early picture in the Johnson Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Humfrey, no. 122). There are seven of the unusually monumentally conceived Madonnas at San Francisco (Humfrey, no. 131), four of both the beautiful picture at Bologna (Humfrey, no. 21) and of that dated 1496 at Udine (Humfrey, no. 137), three of both a panel in the National Gallery, London (Humfrey, nos. 66) and that of 1504 at Este (Humfrey, no. 48); while the ex-Wantage picture at Cardiff (Humfrey, no. 32), signed with a Bellini-like cartellino, begot two subsidiary versions. Most unusually, the present picture is one of three autograph variants - the others are in the National Gallery, London, no. 300 (fig. 1; Humfrey, no. 62), and at Raleigh, the North Carolina Museum of Art, Kress Collection (fig. 2; Humfrey, no. 126) - of a pattern of which six inferior renditions are recorded.
Professor Humfrey considers both the London and Raleigh picture to be 'substantially autograph'. He dates the London picture to circa 1496-9, rejecting Berenson's suggestion that the 'spirited action' of the Child implies a knowledge of Titian's early Madonna at Dresden. He assigns the twice-transferred Raleigh picture to the same period. While the head of the Madonna in this is similar to that at Raleigh, the present panel is more closely related to the London picture. The landscape on the right, with the castle on the lightly-wooded hill, the barn at the foot of this, agrees closely with that panel: in this respect both pictures evidently follow the right hand section of the landscape in the jewel-like Saint Helena at Washington, National Gallery of Art, Kress Collection (Humfrey, no. 165). The pair of swans on the right in this Madonna appear on the left in the London picture, in which the low-lying fields below the castle are described more summarily. The town on the left of the present composition differs from that in the London picture, which corresponds more closely with the walled city - alluding by implication to Jerusalem - of the Saint Helena. A different, more distant, castle appears on the right of the Raleigh picture, balanced by a church with an arcaded front and a campanile. The landscape of the London picture is precisely followed in the studio version at Treviso, Museo Civico, no. 135, and the left section in that in the Louvre, Paris (Humfrey, nos. 135 and 114 respectively) in which there is a curtain on the right; while the background of the Raleigh picture was the model for an untraced weaker variant (Humfrey, no. 180). Like the Louvre picture, two of the other derivations show a curtain on the right (ex-Rouen, Galeria Huisse and St. Petersburg, Hermitage; Humfrey, nos. 129 and 60), while the disconcertingly unbalanced variant at Kassel (Humfrey, no. 55) shows a fortified hill town to the left of the Child's head.
As early as 1893, V. Botteon and A. Aliprandi (Intorno alla vita e alle opere di Giovanni Battista Cima, Conegliano, pp. 114-5) suggested that the castle and town in the London picture are views of Conegliano. Humfrey accepts that both the castle and borgo of Conegliano are depicted in the Washington Saint Helena, and notes that the latter also appears in the early Philadelphia Madonna: he notes (p. 109) that the London landscape 'represents a fairly accurate view of fifteenth-century Conegliano'. There seems no reason to doubt that the castle at least was intended as a reminiscence of that of the town. The drawback of such near topographical fidelity, as a comparison between the London and Raleigh pictures reveals, is that composition is sacrificed to topography in the former, because the town - on the left - is at a visually disconcerting lower level than the castle on the right. In the present panel the introduction of the tree restores balance to the composition without loss of topographical accuracy, although the detail of the town is rather different.
As fascinating as the relationship between the landscape backgrounds of the three autograph versions is that of their tonality. The London picture is almost alarmingly brilliant in color: in this, Cima used the most expensive ultramarine pigment for the blue mantle, the underside of which is a yellow, rather than the unusual and wonderfully subtle brown of the present Madonna: in this respect, the Louvre picture follows that in the National Gallery, as this does in the landscape on the left. For the Raleigh picture, Cima sticks to the convention of showing the Virgin a red dress with a blue mantle. In all three autograph pictures the Madonna's veil is delicately fringed with floral motifs. While the London landscape is characteristic of the late quattrocento, that in the present panel seems to be endowed with something of the sensibility we associate with the late Bellini and the world of Giorgione. This would imply that it is the latest of the three, datable perhaps from after 1505. This could in turn explain why Cima had had time to reconsider the composition and to work out how to achieve a more symmetrical design without sacrificing topographical accuracy, in what must thus be regarded as his definitive rendition of the pattern. The more tender quality of the Madonna's head seems to anticipate that of the poetic late altarpiece of the Madonna and Child with Saints John the Baptist and Mary Magdalen from Parma, now in the Louvre (Humfrey, no. 113), and would also point to a date well into the new century.
Cima was an assiduous signer of his panels - the elegant lettering on the beautifully-treated Veronese marble parapet in this picture is wholly characteristic. In 36 of his 43 signatures recorded by Humfrey, he draws attention to the town of his origin, and of those that omit to do so four only survive in incomplete form. That Conegliano is depicted in both this Madonna and the related panel in the National Gallery, but not alluded to in the signatures on either, might suggest that these were painted for patrons in the artist's hometown. The same could apply to the other picture with a complete signature that does not refer to Conegliano, the Madonna with Saints Jerome and John the Baptist at Washington (Humfrey, no. 163). In the admittedly much fuller inscription on the celebrated high altarpiece of the Duomo at Conegliano (Humfrey, no. 37) the artist proclaimed his connection with the town; but in a less ambitious altarpiece of Saint Peter Enthroned from the church of S. Maria Mater Domini there, now in the Brera, Milan (Humfrey, no. 80), he apparently did not. One might cite the parallel example of Cima's older contemporary, Pietro Vannucci, il Perugino, who customarily omitted references to Perugia in signatures on commissions for that city.