The painting depicts a three-quarter bust of the young Virgin holding in her arms the infant Jesus who is sitting on her lap. The two figures are placed behind a marble balustrade and they exchange warm, human glance full of love.
The features of the two figures are delicate, as well as the hands of Mary who, gently but firmly, supports the Child. These elements represent the intimacy of maternal love and the relationship between the Virgin and the Son, and they are enhanced by the strong, golden light, typical of Bellini’s style, which envelops the two figures and also represents a novelty compared to the artist’s previous works of the same subject, where the two figures were usually placed looking towards the viewer and not looking at each other.
Behind the mother and the child, you can see a landscape with a castle, towers, a river, trees and peaceful green hills which fade in the distance, while in the blue sky there is a chorus of red cherubs resting on soft clouds above the Virgin and Child. For this reason, the painting has the title Madonna of the Red Cherubs, with which it is commonly known.
The choice to represent cherubs, little angels without a body and only the head attached to the wings, in red color, wasn’t an absolute novelty. The French painter Jean Fouquet had already used them in his Madonna of the Milk from 1450-1455 (Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten) with angels of similar color on the sides of the Virgin and Child, while Bellini’s brother-in-law, painter Andrea Mantegna, chose the color only for the wings of the cherubs in his Madonna of the Cherubs, preserved in Milan at the Pinacoteca di Brera, dated around 1485, the same period as the work in question.
In addition to the light that enhances the colors and the volumes of the figures which are strong but not rigid at the same time, also the marble parapet on which a corner of the Virgin’s blue mantle is resting is an element that recurs in Bellini’s works of this subject. The balustrade serves the painter to create a limit between the earthly space of the viewer and that of the divine one, a superior dimension, where Madonna and Child belong, even if they are incarnated in normal human beings, who are able to feel and express their equally earthly feelings.
The work is dated around the mid-1580s’ when Bellini introduced a different variant of his Madonna and Child, a Virgin holding her son seated on her knees, instead of standing or holding him in her arms.
The painting comes from the Scuola Grande of Santa Maria della Carità of Venice, which was transformed into Galleria dell’Accademia after the Napoleonic suppressions at the beginning of the 19th century, where it is still preserved.
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.