Andrea Mantegna, Madonna with Sleeping Child (c. 1465-70)
I just wanted to take a look at this stunning Mantegna.
All one need do is to look momentarily at this Mantegna to see that its power resides in the fact that it’s an internal vision and not a portrait of a sitting model standing in as the Madonna holding a posed child. It has nothing to do with a photographic or mechanical way of seeing.
The design or pictorial architecture stems from an exquisite construction of abstract forms and shapes that lie in a tension between flat abstraction and a perfectly convincing naturalistic modeling, but is in obviously not a drawing from life when one begins to examine it.
Notice the invented peak of the head covering echoed below in the parting of the hair, the beautifully designed tendrils that resist gravity as they repeat one another, the little finger of the Madonna’s hand performing it’s pictorial function by its unnatural lengthening, the eye on the near-side of the Madonna’s head placed frontally instead of conforming to the natural curve of the head.
And what is particularly striking is the volume that the heads of Madonna and Child assume because the dress is painted close to the same dark value as the background. This creates a dream-like tension so that a picture that at a surface glance has a harmonized simplicity when looked at closely assumes a deep complexity of rhythmical curves and minutely realized details, such as the infants hands nestled in the folds of the swaddling cloth along the bottom. Note how those details are contrasted against the large form of Mary’s hand, just as the invented tangle of curls and shapes in Mary’s hair play off the larger forms of her face.
But while I’m describing formal qualities of the picture what holds my attention has nothing to do with formal elements. When I look at Mantegna’s painting I have all kinds of questions and no answers.