The Virgin Mary, standing behind a balustrade, is holding with both hands the infant Jesus, who is depicted in three-quarters looking at the viewer. The Virgin doesn’t seem to pay any attention to the viewer instead. She, in fact, has a slightly reclined face and she is looking at her son with great attention and holding him firmly with her hands, with maternal and protective gesture.
In addition to an even more naturalistic and sweet representation of the relationship between the mother and the child, this represents a novelty compared to his other paintings with similar subject, where the mother and the child never look at each other directly.
Behind the young woman you can see a vertical green tapestry with red edges that refers the canopies, often used the Venetian context – however, not solely in Venice – to cover the throne on which the Virgin and Child are seated in sacred conversations. In the background there a sweet natural landscape that brings out even more the two great figures in the foreground. Behind them you can see hills, blue mountains in the distance, and especially two trees on the sides of the painting, from which derives the name of the artwork.
The two trees have a very specific meaning: the black poplar on the right is a funerary symbol and it indicates the destiny of the Passion that Christ will have to face in his adult life. The white poplar on the left, on the other hand, refers to salvation, the Resurrection of Jesus after death on the cross.
Even the child’s small feet, depicted on top of the other, recall the theme from the Passion: their position is the same of the crucified Christ. The feet are resting on a green marble parapet, an element that is repeated in Bellini’s iconography and where the artist has signed and dated the work “IOANNES BELLINVS 1487”.
As was typical of his paintings of the late 15th century, also in Madonna of the Small Trees Bellini represents the monumental and ample figures in frontal and hieratic pose, in a serene atmosphere, which moves away from the harshness of Andrea Mantegna, his brother-in-law and one of his first artistic references. Even the landscape, illuminated by crystal clear light, is characterized by a balanced design.
The painting is the first of this subject that Bellini has signed and dated, although it is one of the many variations he painted, sometimes with the help of his popular workshop, to satisfy the great demand of clients, who were often rich and aristocratic and ordered works for their private use.
The painting has been preserved at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice since 1838, the year in which the patrician Girolamo Contarini donated this and other works to the museum. In 1902 it was restored quite intensely which has been claimed to have caused damage to the painter’s final touches, which can be seen in a 19th-century copy of the painting, hence made before the harmful intervention and preserved today in an American collection.
Bellini was born in Venice probably around 1430. He studied with his brother Gentile and his father Jacopo, who were known artists, but he also showed interest in Vivarini and especially in the work of his brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna. He went to Padua from 1443 to 1453 where he was influenced by Donatello’s work, which can be seen in his works made in the 1460s with shallow lines in landscapes and figures and with bright and polished colours. Among them are the altarpiece of San Vincenzo Ferreri (SS. Giovanni and Paolo), the Crucifixion and the Transfiguration (Museum Correr), the Prayer in the Garden (National Gallery, London) and juvenile paintings of Madonna and Child and Pietà.
Bellini often softened the forms and preferred less harsh tones of colours, which can be seen in the altarpiece of Pesaro (Coronation of the Virgin, Museo Civico) of 1475. During this period, he also painted the Madonnas of Brera and Santa Maria dell’Orto, the Transfiguration of Capodimonte (1480 - 85) and the altarpiece of San Giobbe (1480) the Triptych of Frari (1488) where you can already see some typical 16th-century influences. The composition is large and solemn, peaceful and sweet, before the works of San Zaccaria (Madonna in the throne with saints, 1505) and San Giovanni Crisostomo (St. Jerome, 1513) where the form and colours are inspired by the works of Giorgione and Titian.
Bellini died in Venice in 1516.
The Accademia of Venice was founded in 1750 and the opening of the Gallerie dell’Accademia was linked to it with primarily educational purpose: in 1803 a decree established the need to adjoin a gallery next to the school that was used by the students who studied painting and sculpting.
In 1817 the gallery was opened also to the public. The gallery is located in the area of Dorsoduro, down by the Accademia bridge, in a complex including the church of Santa Maria della Carità, the Canonici Lateranensi convent and the Scuola Grande of Santa Maria della Carità, all situated in a single floor, divided into twenty-fours and covering 5537 square meters.
The first section of the collection includes the Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple and the Pietà by Titian (1538) and the Triptych of the Madonna della Carità by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna (1480).
The collection also includes essays by the students of the academy and a collection of plaster casts (hence the plural name, gallerie) which were put on display in the exhibition with success in 1817.
The collection was enriched with the paintings brought from defeated France and with the masterpieces that were left to the museum by great collectors. However, the paintings were always linked to the Venetian culture and this feature was tried to overcome for the whole 20th century. Among these works was the legacy of Felicita Reiner (in 1833, but only formalized in 1850), which included masterpieces such as Piero della Francesca’s St. Jerome, Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child and Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene. The legacy of Girolamo Contarini (1838) included 180 works, among them Madonna of the Small Trees and the Four Allegories by Bellini, and six paintings by Pietro Longhi.
The emperor Franz Joseph grew the collection with Nicolò di Pietro’s Madonna and Mantegna’s St. George, Memling’s Portrait of a Young Man and Giorgione’s Old Woman. The gallery was radically reorganized in 1895 by the director Giulio Cantalamessa. He excluded all the 19th century artists and for the first time the exhibition was organized chronologically. He coordinated the cycles of the School of St. Ursula by Vittore Carpaccio and the School of St. John the Evangelist by Cima da Conegliano, previously divided in various locations. Under the direction of Gino Fogolari (1905) the museum acquired other fundamental masterpieces, such as the Tempest by Giorgione and the Crucifixion by Luca Giordano and the Feast at the House of Simon by Bernardo Strozzi.
In the post-war period the museum performed various changes, for example Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, which was supposed to be placed in a specially designed room, was returned to the Frari church in Venice instead. The 19th century works that were already excluded from the exhibition were sent to the deposit at the museum of Modern Art in Ca’ Pesaro and the foreign art in the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti in Ca’ d’Oro. In the 1940s’ Vittorio Moschini and Carlo Scarpa wanted to perform a modern reorganization of the museum, including the 19th century salons, but which resulted quite impractical in the end. In these years Francesco Guardi’s Fire in the Oil Depot of San Marcuola and Montagna’s St. Peter and Donor became part of the collection.
In 1987 director Sciré decided to increase the exhibition space opening the gallery on the fourth floor with the graphic collection and a new deposit was opened on the top floor of the Palladio building. In the same year the collection was enriched with two cherubs and two allegorical figures representing Justice and Patience, taken from Giorgio Vasari’s ceiling in a room of Palazzo Corner on the Grand Canal. Between 2001-2003 the gallery was renovated expanding the exhibition areas and adding modern lightning in the rooms.