Although Antonello was born in Sicily and spent a good part of his active life there, his importance to fifteenth-century painting touches on north Italian art, particularly Venetian, and even displays important connections with the Flemish school. He is sometimes classed among Venetian painters, with whom his art has more in common than with any other local style. He was born Antonello di Giovanni degli Antonj at Messina, the son of a sculptor. His earliest dated works reveal that he had been in contact with the painting or at least felt the influence of the Flemish school. This influence may have come to him through Spain, or Spanish artists working in Sicily, who were much indebted to Flemish art. It is possible, but not likely, that he actually visited the Netherlands. His earliest known work, Christ Crowned with Thorns (signed and once dated 1470, now in the Metropolitan), is painted in the oil technique that had been practiced since the early fifteenth century by the van Eycks in Bruges, but which was unknown in Italy until about the 1470’s. The history of this painting indicates that it was probably painted in Sicily. There is no record of Antonello’s having visited Venice before 1475, where he used to be credited with having introduced the oil technique. Furthermore, Bartolommeo Vivarini was already using this technique in Venice by 1473, which would indicate that it came to Italy through various channels. Antonello is first heard of in Messina in 1457, and is known to have been there from 1460 to 1465, but from then until 1473 there is no record of his activity except for the dated painting of 1470. Works done before his trip to Venice include a signed Madonna of the Rosary, dated 1473 (Messina gallery), another Christ Crowned with Thorns of the same year (Piacenza museum), an Annunciation of c.1474 (Syracuse, Sicily, museum), and a Crucifixion of 1475 (Antwerp). In all these his style shows a sharp observation of nature, the luminous, jewel-like color obtainable- only with oil glazes, and a sense of light and atmosphere surrounding the convincingly modeled forms that is closely allied with the van Eyck tradition in Flemish painting. In Venice in 1475 and 1476 he painted an altar for San Casciano, parts of which are preserved in the Vienna museum.
Although all of Antonello’s extant works were painted within less than ten years, there is a marked difference between those painted before and after his stay in Venice. From the Venetians he evidently learned a softer and broader manner and greater lyricism of expression. What he gave to Venice may not have been the oil technique but certainly some of the means of exploiting it. His light and shade, used for modeling, for defining space, and for emotional expression, seem to have affected Giovanni Bellini and Alvise Vivarini. These painters are thus separated from the tradition of the elder Vivarini. Among his post-Venetian works are the St. Jerome in his Study and a second Crucifixion of 1477 (London), and a St. Sebastian (formerly in Dresden) that shows the influence of Man. tegna, especially in the device of foreshortening both architecture and figures. A number of his portraits belong in the forefront of the development of portraiture in the late fifteenth century. Aside from their Flemish realism, they embody a new, more plastic and more personal approach to the rendering of a sitter, with the head in three-quarter view and the eyes looking out toward the spectator.