Giovanni Battista Cima, who signed his works "joannis baptiste coneglanensis" (with occasional variations in spelling), was born into a family of cimatori di panni (craftsmen who trimmed and finished wool cloth) in the Venetian terraferma town of Conegliano. He is first mentioned in the tax records of Conegliano in 1473, presumably upon attainment of the majority age of fourteen, suggesting that he was born around 1459. He probably moved to Venice in the early or mid-1480s: a document of 1486 records payments to a "Magister Zambatista pictor," resident in Venice, for a standard for a scuola in Conegliano, while a document of 1492 definitely refers to Cima as resident in Venice. He worked and resided there until his death, although he continued to maintain close ties with Conegliano.
Cima's earliest dated work, of 1489, is an altarpiece for the church of S. Bartolomeo in Vicenza. At least one major altarpiece, for the little town of Olera, near Bergamo, probably predates it. In the 1490s Cima began to receive major commissions for altarpieces in Venice itself. With Giovanni Bellini occupied with the decoration of the doge's palace, Cima became the leading painter of altarpieces in the Veneto. About thirty of his altarpieces survive, outnumbering those by any of his Venetian contemporaries. In addition to altarpieces, mostly of the sacra conversazione type, Cima specialized in half-length Madonnas for private devotion of which numerous workshop replicas are known. Almost all of his mature works include idyllic landscape backgrounds that recall the countryside around Conegliano; Cima seems to have made a specialty of themes--such as Saint Jerome in the wilderness--that called for extensive landscape settings.
Cima developed his style early and maintained it with remarkable consistency throughout his career. Although Vasari may not be literally correct when he mentions Cima as a "discepolo" of Giovanni Bellini (no documentary evidence exists concerning Cima's training), this description is accurate in the sense that the dominant influence on Cima's style was Bellini's mid-career painting, of the 1470s and 1480s, which responded to the sojourn of Antonello da Messina in Venice. Cima's works are characterized by compositional harmony; clear, warm colors; and a concern for plasticity and clearly defined spatial arrangement. Cima, often referred to as a "rustic Bellini," painted figure types that are very close to Bellini's; females tend to be generalized, while males have a specific, portrait-like quality. Much of his oeuvre does have a certain ingenuousness and sweet simplicity. But in his finest altarpieces (for example, the Virgin and Child with Saints Michael and Andrew, Galleria Nazionale, Parma, and the Incredulity of Thomas, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice), monumental, classically conceived figures, striking architectural settings and landscapes, and dynamic and asymmetrical compositions anticipate Venetian art of the sixteenth century. In a few works, such as the Lamentation (Galleria Estense, Modena), Cima approaches the emotional depth of his mentor Bellini.
Though he experimented with the new secular subject matter, Cima continued to work in a style that remained essentially unchanged from his youth well into the sixteenth century. That he continued to receive important commissions reflects the high quality of his work and, perhaps, its appeal to conservative tastes. Cima's last documented commission is from 1516; the next document with his name, from 1517 or 1518, records a payment for masses said for his soul. [This is the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Coletti, Luigi. Cima da Conegliano. Venice, 1959.
Menegazzi, Luigi. Cima da Conegliano. Treviso, 1981.
Humfrey, Peter. Cima da Conegliano. Cambridge, England, 1983.
Boskovits, Miklós, and David Alan Brown, et al. Italian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century. The Systematic Catalogue of the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 2003: 201.