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Following a Period of Study, Bellini Painting Goes on View at the Frick Collection
Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430–1516), Infrared reflectogram detail of St. Francis in the Desert, c. 1480. Oil on poplar panel, 49 x 55 ⅞ inches. The Frick Collection, New York. Technical photography by Department of Paintings Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

NEW YORK, N.Y.- Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert, a hallmark of The Frick Collection and one of the most important Italian Renaissance paintings in America, is a moving, spiritual portrait of a central figure in western Christianity. It is also a profoundly mysterious work, whose beauty depths of detail are matched only by the enigma of the artist’s intentions. This spring, following a period of unprecedented study, the painting is the subject of a special exhibition, In a New Light: Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert. Running from May 22 through August 28, the dossier presentation places the painting in the sky lit Oval Room for a rare viewing opportunity outside of its traditional location in the mansion’s Living Hall. The exhibition also marks the debut of a Multimedia Room at the Frick. This new educational space, just steps away from the Oval Room, will allow visitors to learn about the technical examination through videos and interactive photography.

Comments Director Anne Poulet, “We are privileged to have in our care Bellini’s great depiction of St. Francis. An important aspect of our role is the study and interpretation of this masterpiece, and in the past year, we’ve reconsidered fundamental questions about the panel’s subject and creation. For this purpose, we sent the painting to the Sherman Fairchild Paintings Conservation Center of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the spring of 2010 for technical examination by Paintings Conservator Charlotte Hale. Her findings—combined with the input of art historians, conservators, scientists, and educators consulted during this study—have resulted in a better understanding of Bellini’s process from conception to realization. With this magnificent work on view again, and through our new Multimedia Room, we encourage the public to view St. Francis in the Desert in a new light.” This project is coordinated by the Frick’s Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow Susannah Rutherglen in conjunction with curators and conservators at the Frick and the Metropolitan Museum. The exhibition is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


In the spring of 2010, St. Francis in the Desert (c. 1480) was sent to the Sherman Fairchild Paintings Conservation Center of the Metropolitan Museum, its first departure from the Frick mansion since the painting entered the collection in 1915. Previously, Xradiographs were taken at the Frick in the 1950s, and an early form of analysis with infrared reflectography was conducted in the 1980s, but the 2010 examination included for the first time a comprehensive and much-updated series of synthetic technical studies, making this an unprecedented learning opportunity. Metropolitan Museum Paintings Conservator Charlotte Hale oversaw the survey, which incorporated a significantly more advanced, digital, and higher resolution form of infrared reflectography, as well as X-radiography, microscopy, surface examination, and paint analysis. The technical findings will be made available at the Frick in a newly developed Multimedia Room, where visitors may use computer kiosks to examine at close range the infrared reflectogram, which reveals Bellini’s initial drawing hidden beneath the paint layers. Visitors may also view four thematic videos created by the Frick’s Mellon Fellow Susannah Rutherglen in conjunction with the Frick’s New Media Specialist Lisa Candage and Met Paintings Conservator Charlotte Hale. Therein specific elements of the panel—the sky, St. Francis, the flora, and the fauna—may be viewed and appreciated in relation to the results of the conservation study.


In addition to presenting new insights into Bellini’s working process, the technical study established in detail what has long been perceived by devoted viewers of St. Francis: the consummate beauty, precision, and facility of the artist’s manipulation of paint, from the rich and brushy application of ultramarine in the sky to the intricate representation of twining grapevine tendrils at the top of the saint’s hut. The hair-thin consistency of these elements recalls a well-known anecdote, recounted by the classical author Pliny the Elder, in which the Greek artists Protogenes and Apelles competed with each other to compose fine lines in varying colors. Apelles arrived at the studio of Protogenes when the master was away, and in lieu of a note left an impossibly thin line painted on a panel, thus deploying his superlative technique as a calling card—and as a provocation to his rival. Upon returning, Protogenes instantly recognized who had visited in his absence, and thus was spurred to paint an even finer line. In St. Francis, too, minute details signify the artist’s presence, reminding the viewer that behind this deeply communicative work of religious devotion stands an unsurpassed painter. Indeed, despite the wealth of fresh information uncovered by the recent technical study, each encounter with this masterpiece remains ripe with the possibility of new appreciations and novel interpretations of the compelling genius of Giovanni Bellini’s art.

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