Mantegna put chisel to canvas

This fiercely tender image of motherhood is a testament to the power of a completely realized work of art to remain impressive in spite of the depredations of the centuries. This engraving of the 1480s by the Italian Early Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna exists today in very few fine impressions. This impression is a later one, however, and it has been retouched and restored.

It also has lost many of the subtle mid-tone grays achieved by the drypoint technique and visible in impressions in Vienna and London. Yet the Louvre in Paris proudly includes this impression in its current exhibition of one of the world's premier print collections, bequeathed to the museum in the 1930s by Edmond de Rothschild.

"La Vierge à l'Enfant" is not simply a touching, heartfelt mother and baby, for all the artist's close understanding of that human bond. It represents the Virgin mother and the infant Jesus. It was originally printed on a larger sheet of paper, but, trimmed down, it has an increased sense of affectionate intimacy, making it seem an almost startlingly secular image for its time.

Later artists such as Raphael and then 17th-century Dutch artist Rembrandt took this human feeling for the young woman who gave birth to Jesus even further. But there is one paramount characteristic of Mantegna's art that neither of these successors possessed. This is a kind of stony, even flinty, hardness. Mantegna's figures seem chiseled out of rock. Whether in his paintings, drawings, or engravings, there is a carved incisiveness.

It could hardly be more intense as a contrast to the soft protectiveness of the subject of Virgin and child. This rocky vision is often explained as the fruit of Mantegna's fascination with the fragmented stone remains of classical sculpture. The world of classical art was integral to what later came to be called the "Renaissance" (meaning "rebirth").

But in Mantegna's art this interest became something more. It seems to have been almost an obsession. He painted as if he were a sculptor manqué. When he came to design and even possibly to engrave his prints, he found a medium that allowed full play to this crisp, forceful, monumental view of the world.

"Masterpieces From the Collection of Edmond de Rothschild" is at the Louvre through Jan. 10, 2005.

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