El Greco (Doménikos Theotokópoulos; 1541–1614)
EL GRECO (Doménikos Theotokópoulos; 1541–1614)
EL GRECO (Doménikos Theotokópoulos; 1541–1614), painter, sculptor, and architect. El Greco is usually classified as a Spanish artist, although he was born in Candia, Crete. He had one of the most unconventional career paths of any artist of his era. Initially active in Crete as an icon painter, he transformed his art in Italy through the independent study of works by leading Renaissance artists. Unsuccessful in Italy, he finally settled in Toledo, where his career was fostered by influential ecclesiastics. There, he developed a unique pictorial style, which synthesized aspects of Byzantine and Renaissance artistic traditions.
El Greco was first recorded as a "master painter" in 1563. The recently discovered Dormition of the Virgin (Church of the Dormition, Syros, before 1567) provides the most reliable indication of his early manner. Like other Cretan artists of the late sixteenth century, he introduced a few minor Italian decorative details into a composition, which otherwise adheres to traditional formulas. Characteristic features of the late Byzantine style include the gold background, the vertical organization of pictorial elements, and the simplified modeling of figures.
In late 1567 El Greco was recorded in Venice, the capital of the maritime empire that included Crete. Although many Cretan artists sought work in Venice, El Greco is the only one who substantially altered his style and working methods there. The bright, scintillating colors and the freely applied, roughly textured oil paint of The Purification of the Temple (before 1570, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) reveal his mastery of the distinctive techniques of Titian (1487–1576) and Tintoretto (1518–1594). Most of the figures in this painting were "quoted" from famous Renaissance and ancient classical artworks. Before the end of 1570 he had arrived in Rome, where he lived in the palace of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520–1589), a strong advocate of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. In 1572 El Greco was admitted to the Academy of Saint Luke as a miniature painter. The paintings of his Roman period, such as the Christ Cleansing the Temple (c. 1575, Minneapolis Institute of Arts), have a monumental force that belies their small size.
Unable to obtain significant commissions in Italy, in 1577 El Greco traveled to Spain, in the hope of procuring employment in the extensive royal decorative projects. Before the end of 1577, Don Diego de Castilla (1510–1584), dean of Toledo Cathedral, entrusted him with his first major project: an ensemble of nine altarpieces, five statues, and architectural frames for the convent church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, Toledo. The main altarpiece, The Assumption of the Virgin (1577, Art Institute of Chicago), one of the largest pictures of his career, helped to establish his reputation as the leading artist in Toledo. He resolved to settle permanently in that city after the extreme dissatisfaction of Philip II with The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice (1580/2, El Escorial, Chapter House) forced him to abandon his aspiration to become a royal painter.
By the mid-1580s El Greco had established a profitable artistic practice, which produced statues and paintings for religious institutions throughout Spain. In 1586 he undertook The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (Santo Tomé, Toledo), his most famous painting, representing a miracle that occurred in 1323. In the lower section, he included naturalistic portraits of several contemporary Toledans among the mourners who witness Saints Augustine and Stephen lowering the count into his tomb. In the upper section, he depicted Christ and saints in a bold, expressionistic style, which anticipates his late work.
Between 1597 to 1607 (the most successful period of his career), he completed several major commissions for prominent religious institutions. In The Crucifixion of Christ (1597–1599, Museo del Prado, Madrid) and other altarpieces of this period, he utilized a style of great expressive power. Among the features contributing to the impact of these works are the elongated figures; stylized, but intense, facial expressions and gestures; vivid colors; strong illumination of limited areas against a dark background; and the exceptionally bold application of paint. His notes for an unpublished treatise reveal his unconventional ideas about architecture, but his works in that medium were limited to frames for altarpieces and temporary festival structures. In the monumental high altar of the church of the Hospital of Charity of Illescas (1603–1605), he utilized classical architectural elements in very novel ways. In addition to large-scale commissions, his workshop produced numerous images of Saint Francis and other popular religious subjects.
Between 1607 and 1608 he squandered his financial resources in a series of legal suits concerning payment for his work at the Hospital of Charity, Illescas. These suits left him impoverished, but they helped to inspire later Spanish artists to defend their interests vigorously. Although the extent of his production declined in his later years due to poor health, his creative powers were not diminished. Between 1607 and 1614 he produced some of his boldest paintings, including The Laocoön (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and The Apocalyptic Vision (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Best known as a religious painter, he also depicted most of the leading ecclesiastics and intellectuals of Toledo. Although enlivened by bold brushwork, his portraits are more naturalistic in conception and more sober in coloring than his religious works. The directness of such portraits as Antonio de Covarrubias (c. 1600, Musée du Louvre, Paris) and Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino (1609, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) evokes his close friendships with these individuals. His few portraits of women, including Woman in a Fur Wrap (c. 1580, Pollock House, Glasgow), express the dignity, intelligence, and beauty of the subjects.
By the time of his death, his distinctive style had fallen out of favor. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several avant-garde artists, including Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) and Franz Marc (1880–1916), helped to promote international interest in his work. He remains one of the most popular of all old master painters. Throughout the twentieth century, numerous explanations—including astigmatism, psychological disorders, and mystical ecstasy—were devised to account for his individual style. In recent decades, scholars have recognized that his distinctive work eloquently fulfilled the requirements of the Counter-Reformation Church in Spain.
Álvarez Lopera, José, ed. El Greco, Identity and Transformation: Crete, Italy, Spain. Milan, 1999. This catalogue of an important exhibition, held (1999–2000) in Madrid, Rome, and Athens, includes discussion of important works from all phases of the artist's career.
Mann, Richard G. El Greco and His Patrons: Three Major Projects. Cambridge, U.K., 1986. A comprehensive study of the artist's interactions with his most important patrons.
Wethey, Harold. El Greco and His School. 2 vols. Princeton, 1962. Still regarded as the most reliable catalogue of the works produced by the artist in Italy and Spain.
Richard G. Mann
Born Doménikos Theotokópoulos, 1541, in Candia (now Iraklion) Crete; immigrated to Spain, 1577; died April 7, 1614, in Toledo, Spain; son of Jorghi Theotokópoulos; partner of Doña Jerónima de las Cuevas; children: Jorge Manuel. Education: Studied in Venice, Italy, with Titian, 1568.
Established as painter, Crete, 1566; painter in Venice, Italy, 1578-71; painter in Rome, Italy, 1571-77; painter in Toledo, Spain, 1577-1614. Major works include: El Espolio, 1577; Assumption of the Virgin, 1579; Martyrdom of St. Maurice, 1582; The Burial of Count Orgaz, 1588; View of Toledo, 1600; Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino, 1605; The Opening of the Fifth Seal, 1612. Exhibitions: Major contemporary exhibitions at National Gallery of Art, Dallas, TX, 1982; Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain, 1999; and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY, 2003-04. Work included in permanent collections at Museo de El Greco, Toledo, Spain; Museo del Prado; Sacristy, Cathedral of Toledo, Toledo, Spain; Escorial, Madrid; Louvre, Paris, France; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Uffizi, Florence, Italy; and Art Institute of Chicago, IL.
Roman Academy of St. Luke.
Wrote widely and passionately on art theory, though none of his writings have survived.
El Greco "was one of the most original artists of his age," according to a critic for USA Today, reviewing a major retrospective of the artist's works staged both in New York and London between 2003 and 2004. That exhibition occasioned a critical reappraisal of the work of one of the major painters since the time of the Renaissance. The USA Today critic went on to note that El Greco was "celebrated for his highly expressive and visionary religious paintings and psychologically compelling portraits." Creating much of his work in the late sixteenth century, the painter seems, by modern standards, to be far ahead of his time. He was, according to Lucy Fisher of Time International, "the undisputed giant of 16th century Spanish art." Susan Osmond, writing in World and I, described the characteristic El Greco style: "those elongated, sinuous figures draped in stiff robes that fold like crumpled metal; skies with clouds like shredded veils lit from behind and wondrously contorted." El Greco's art was an amazing amalgam of late medieval Byzantine traditions and Italian Renaissance art which, as the USA Today reviewer further noted, was an attempt to "create an innovative and spiritually more intense relationship between viewer and image."
For art critic Peter Schjeldahl, writing in the New Yorker, "the glory and the problem of El Greco are the same: spirituality." According to Schjeldahl, "No other great artist takes this fundamental, usually ineffable aspect of experience so literally, as an open secret." Similarly, Richard Lacayo, writing in Time magazine, observed, "If it weren't for Van Gogh, who but El Greco would be our best symbol for the individual genius, the artist working in a style unlike any other of his time? All that lashing brushwork; the torqued, lunging figures; the saints stretched as tight as thunderbolts by their passion for God—if ever there was an artist whose work seems edged all around by fire, it's El Greco."
It was not just in his own time that El Greco held great influence. No less an artist than Pablo Picasso noted that the Greek-born immigrant to Spain was "really a painter," as Lacayo noted. Languishing in obscurity for centuries after his death in 1614, El Greco was rediscovered in the nineteenth century, and his works have influenced new generations of painters, from the French Impressionists to New York's Abstract Expressionists. Lacayo further observed that the works of this four-hundred-year old artist remain a "jolt to the senses." Fisher also commented on the timeless quality of El Greco's art: "Ever since they were rediscovered in the 19th century, his dramatic religious set pieces and dark, melancholy portraits have been regarded as groundbreaking, and 20th century modernists claimed him as a brother." Yet there was little in El Greco's early life to foretell such a groundbreaking path. Richard Cork, writing in the New Statesman, commented: "Does any other artist's career follow a trajectory as dramatic and unexpected as El Greco's? No one could have guessed, from the backward-looking icons he painted at the outset, that this obedient provincial youth would transform himself into such an original talent."
Born Doménikos Theotokópoulos in Candia, Crete, in 1541, El Greco learned the basics of painting as a youth, though little is known of these early years. Neither is much known of his family, although his father's name was Jorghi and he had a brother, Manoussos. It is safe to assume his family was not poor, for El Greco's skill with languages and his wide reading all suggest an early education. Such an assumption is buttressed by the fact that later in life, when he was a successful painter and could afford a library, he filled it with books of philosophy annotated with his own curious and searching questions and comments.
Crete at the time of El Greco's birth was a center of Byzantine culture and of the Greek Orthodox religion. What art existed was largely religious, depictions of saints or of scenes from the Bible, all done in the iconic style of Byzantine art. Such art was intended to instill devotion in the viewer, and thus the figures were rather stereotypical. It was in this tradition that the young El Greco was trained. One notary document from Crete shows that at an early age El Greco was describing himself as "Master Doménikos Theotokópoulos, painter."
During El Greco's lifetime his homeland was under Venetian rule, and there was a sizeable Greek colony in Venice. Thus it was natural for a young painter desiring to broaden his horizons to travel to Venice, as El Greco did in about 1567, or perhaps even earlier. He spent three or four years in Venice, studying, it is thought, with the great Renaissance painter Titian, although there is no direct evidence that he worked in that master's studio. It is clear, however, that he adapted the Renaissance sense of color from sixteenth-century Venetian painting, influenced not only by the works of Titian, but also by Tintoretto, Veronese, and Jacopo Bassano. During his Venetian period, El Greco's art was transformed, as can be seen in Purification of the Temple with its rich use of color. As Cork noted, "El Greco's Venetian work may be clumsy and uneven, but the sense of liberation is overwhelming." It was during this Venetian period also that he began a personal transformation, becoming known as "Il Greco," the Greek, later to be El Greco when he moved to Spain.
From Italy to Spain
A sojourn in Rome followed. El Greco apparently remained in that cultural center from 1570 to 1577. During this time he was known as a painter of miniatures, working on commissions for the wealthy Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, secured for him by a painter friend, Giulio Clovio. In 1572 he was admitted to the Roman Academy of St. Luke, a painter's guild. While in Rome he came under the influence of Raphael and Michelangelo, and of the mannerist school of painting with its elongated forms. Here, for the first time, El Greco was confronted with a style of painting in which the realistic portrayal of nature was shunned in favor of a more subjective vision. His religious work of the time, such as the Annunciation, does not show anything very unique yet, but his portraiture, such as Giulio Clovio and Portrait of a Man, give hints to his greatness. In fact, during his Roman sojourn, he was known as a portraitist.
It is said that El Greco did not prosper while in Rome because he had unkind words for Michelangelo's work, proposing that the painter should re-do part of the Sistine Chapel. Apocryphal or not, the tale is indicative of El Greco's abrasive manner, a fact attested to by numerous subsequent litigations over unpaid fees. Failing to win major commissions in Italy, El Greco left for Spain in 1577. In Spain, El Greco had high hopes of working for King Phillip II, who was building a new palace and monastic retreat, the Escorial. However, Phillip did not care much for a fantastical work the painter submitted, The Adoration of the Name of Jesus. El Greco had far better luck with religious institutions, for Spain was in the throes of the Counter-Reformation, a movement attempting to re-establish Catholic supremacy. He won a commission for three altars in the Toledo cathedral. One of these, El Espolio, or The Disrobing of Christ, destined for the sacristy of the cathedral, was his largest work thus far and demonstrates the twin influences of Byzantine and Italian art. Here for the first time is seen El Greco's characteristic elongated figures, compressed space, and restless light. For this he was paid 350 ducats; the fee for the picture frame was 570 ducats. From this fact one can, as Schjeldahl noted, "gauge the status of painting in Spain at the time." It also took several years of litigation for El Greco to receive his fee.
Other work from the painter's early years in Spain are the Assumption of the Virgin and the Trinity for the altarpiece of the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. Even in these religious paintings, however, El Greco's spiritual message is sometimes blurred by the play of light or background details. In 1578, El Greco's son, Jorge Manuel, was born. He later trained him as an artist and collaborator. El Greco's star rose in Spain; he was able to rent a suite of twenty-four rooms in the Villena Palace and live a rather lavish lifestyle. In 1580 the king finally sought El Greco out for a commission for the Escorial. The result of two years of labor was the Martyrdom of Saint Maurice and the Theban Legions. Because he placed the martyrdom in the background of the action, the devout King Phillip was not pleased and had the painting banished to the cellars of the Escorial. (It has since been returned to its place of honor and forms a centerpiece of the artwork in the palace.) In 1587 he received the commission for one of his most famous paintings, the Burial of the Count of Orgaz, which was intended for another Toledo religious institution.
The Final Years and Legacy
Meanwhile, El Greco was also making a name for himself as a portraitist, and two of his most famous portraits are Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino and A Cardinal. The latter work is believed to be of Cardinal Don Fernando Nino de Guevara, head of the Spanish Inquisition. According to Schjeldahl, this portrait is "a landmark in the history of European art." The critic further explained: "It is considered so because the artist here redefined portraiture, going beyond mere description to make a probing psychological exploration of the sitter." The portrait of Fray Hortensio displays this same subjective quality. According to Schjeldahl, "the darting brushwork . . . conveys a fleet mind and a passionate, artistic temperament."
El Greco rarely ventured into the landscape genre, though background landscapes tend to be important in much of his work. However with the 1599 work View of Toledo he presents an almost surreal view of the city he adopted as his own for the last decades of his life. According to a critic for USA Today, this picture is "sometimes considered the first expressionist landscape in Western art." Other significant work done during El Greco's later period are the canvasses painted for the Hospital of Charity church at Illescas, a town between Madrid and Toledo, and Laocoon from 1610.
El Greco died in 1614, hard at work on new commissions. He left behind a body of some three hundred paintings that have been firmly attributed to him, though some historians believe that his output was closer to 850. One of his paintings discovered in the first years of the twenty-first century, The Baptism of Christ, fetched over $1 million at auction in 2004, purchased by the painter's birthplace in Crete in honor of its most famous native son. Such fame took a while coming. After El Greco's death his studio continued to turn out paintings in his style, but soon he fell out of fashion. It was not until the late nineteenth century that El Greco was rediscovered by the French, and then his star rose once again. Since then he has been recognized as one of a handful of great portrait painters and Spain's finest religious artist. Osmond noted that the painter is much more than the sum of his influences. "Although El Greco assimilated much from the art of his day," Osmond wrote, "in the end he transcended it all and forged his own utterly unique vision. He leaps beyond his time into the ages—and into eternity."
If you enjoy the works of El Greco
If you enjoy the works of El Greco, you may also want to check out the following:
The art of Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Tintoretto (1518-1594), who influenced El Greco, and the works of two other great Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) and Francisco de Goya (1746-1828).
For art critic Jed Perl, writing in the New Republic, it is the "impossible" nature of his art that makes El Greco great. "El Greco's colors—those shivering whites and clangorous yellows and feverish blues—ought to be impossible," Perl commented. "His figures—their bodies so wildly elongated, their faces and hands so hopelessly twisted—ought to be grotesque. And yet this arch-expressionist, who pulls his grand designs out of a sense of form that can strikes us as quite nearly deranged, gives pictorial vehemence a limpidity, almost a quietism." For Perl, the measure of El Greco's greatness is found standing in front of any of his great paintings: Fray Hortensio, View of Toledo, The Virgin, The Immaculate Conception, Adoration of the Shepherds, or Purification of the Temple. It is then, Perl commented, that you find yourself "in a fire-and-ice world, and you sweat and shiver all at once, and you are happy to feel this way."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Bronstein, Leo, El Greco, Harry N. Abrams (New York, NY), 1990.
Davies, David, El Greco, Dutton, (New York, NY), 1976.
El Greco of Toledo (exhibition catalogue), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1982.
Finaldi, Gabriele, and others, editors, El Greco (exhibition catalogue), Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY), 2004.
Goldscheider, Ludwig, El Greco: Paintings Drawings, and Sculptures, Phaidon Press (London, England), 1954.
Gudiol, José, Doménikos Theotokópoulos, El Greco, 1541-1614, Viking (New York, NY), 1973.
Gudiol, José, The Complete Paintings of El Greco, 1541-1614, translated by Kenneth Lyons, Greenwich House (New York, NY), 1983.
International Dictionary of Art and Artists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1990.
Lassaigne, Jacques, El Greco, translated by Jane Brenton, Thames & Hudson (London, England), 1973.
Lopera, Jose Alvarez, and others, editors, El Greco: Identity and Transformation, Skira-Berenice, 1999.
Mann, Richard G. El Greco and His Patrons: Three Major Projects, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1986.
Serraller, F. Calvo El Greco: The Burial of Count Orgaz, Thames and Hudson (London, England), 1995.
American Artist, January, 2004, Susan Lyons, "The Mastery of El Greco," p. 7.
Commentary, December, 2003, Steven C. Munson, "El Greco and His Critics," p. 53.
Contemporary Review, May, 2004, Donald Bruce, "El Greco at the National Gallery," p. 295.
Europe Intelligence Wire, September 29, 2003, "El Greco Retrospective Shows Influence on Modern Artists."
National Catholic Reporter, Kevin Culligan, "St. John of the Cross," p. 12.
New Criterion, Karen Wilkin, "The Modernism of El Greco," p. 43.
New Republic, November 24, 2003, Jed Perl, "On Art—Old Modern Spain," p. 25.
New Statesman, March 1, 2004, Richard Cork, "Hot Flashes," p. 42.
New Yorker, October 20, 2003, Peter Schjeldahl, "Holy Toledo," p. 198.
Time, October 6, 2003, Richard Lacayo, "Thunderbolts of Ecstasy," p. 64.
Time International, February 16, 3004, Lucy Fisher, "Becoming El Greco," p. 66.
Town & Country, November, 2003, Abigail R. Esman, "El Greco in New York," p. 136.
USA Today, November, 2003, "'The Greek' Invades Italy and Spain," p. 34.
World and I, Susan Osmond, "El Greco: The Earthly Transfigured," p. 92.
BBC News Online,http://news.bbc.co.uk/ (January 30, 2004), Penny Papadapoulou, "El Greco"; (December 8, 2004), "El Greco Picture Exceeds Estimate."
Catholic Encyclopedia Online,http://www.newadvent.org/ (December 29, 2004), George Charles Williamson, "Domenico Theotocopuli (El Greco)."
Herald Tribune Online,http://www.iht.com/ (July 17, 1999), Roderick Conway Morris, "El Greco: The Master and the Myth."
Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site,http://www.metmuseum.org/ (December 29, 2004), "El Greco."
Museo de El Greco Web site,http://www.geocities.com/ (December 29, 2004).
National Gallery Web site,http://www.nga.gov/ (December 29, 2004), "El Greco."
New York Observer Online,http://www.observer.com/ (May 28, 2001), Hilton Kramer, "El Greco, Modern Augurer, Stirred Mobs to Battle."
Telegraph Online (London, England), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/ (June 23, 2001), "Artists on Art."*
El Greco (1541-1614), a Greek painter who settled in Spain, evolved a highly personal style with mannerist traits. He was a great religious painter of a visionary nature and a master portraitist.
El Greco is regarded as one of the greatest painters of all time. He was rescued from critical and popular neglect by the French impressionists in the late 19th century, but his rise to fame came with the reevaluations of the first decade of the 20th century. El Greco's mature art, which is notable for its emotional expressionism rather than realism or idealism in the neoclassic sense, fulfilled the concepts of the new cult of expressionism at the beginning of the 20th century.
El Greco, whose real name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, was born in Candia, Crete, in 1541, according to his own statement. The artist must have had some preparation as a painter before he went to the great artistic center of Venice. Since Crete was a Venetian possession during that period, he logically chose to go to Venice rather than to Florence or Rome. The precise date of his arrival in Italy is unknown; it may have been as early as 1560. The fact that he witnessed a document in Candia in 1566 has caused some writers to insist that his first voyage to Venice came later, yet he may have returned to Crete for a visit the year of his father's death (1566). During his stay in Italy he became known as II Greco ("the Greek") because his name was too difficult to pronounce. Later, in Spain, he was called El Greco.
El Greco was said to be a pupil of Titian in a letter the miniaturist Giulio Clovio wrote to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese on Nov. 16, 1570, asking that the young man be given lodging in the Palazzo Farnese in Rome. El Greco's trip to Rome in 1570 is thus proved, and he was still there on Oct. 18, 1572, when he paid his dues to the painters' guild of St. Luke. It is speculated that he subsequently returned from Rome to Venice and that he departed for Spain in 1576, possibly because of a plague in Venice.
The story has often been repeated that Giulio Clovio visited the young painter in Rome and found that he had closed his blinds on a sunny day because the light of day would destroy his inner light. That tale was invented by a Yugoslavian student studying in Munich in 1922-1923. A much earlier fabrication given circulation by Giulio Mancini (ca. 1614-1621) holds that El Greco had to flee from Rome to Spain because he had criticized Michelangelo's Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel and said that he could do better.
Various reasons for El Greco's migration to Spain have been advanced, among them that he hoped for commissions to work at the great monastery of the Escorial, which King Philip II had begun in 1536. El Greco knew that Philip had been a great patron of Titian, who provided several religious compositions for the Escorial as well as mythological pictures and portraits for Philip's art collection. Another probable enticement was the advance promise of a commission for the altars for the church of S. Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo.
In 1577 El Greco arrived in Madrid and soon visited Toledo. There he executed his first great commission, the high altar and the two lateral altars of S. Domingo el Antiguo, and the Espolio, or Disrobing of Christ, in the Cathedral (both 1577-1579). A controversy over payment for the latter work led to a litigation, the preserved document for which provides valuable information about El Greco at the beginning of his Spanish years, when he still understood little Castilian.
At this time El Greco formed a liaison with a young woman, Doña Jerónima de las Cuevas, by whom he had a son, Jorge Manuel Theotocopuli (1578-1631). El Greco's failure to marry her despite the respectful reference to her in his last testament has given rise to considerable speculation. The possibility that he left an estranged wife in Italy is by no means unreasonable.
El Greco's only connection with Philip II and the Spanish court occurred in the early Spanish years, when he painted the Allegory of the Holy League (1578-1579) and the Martyrdom of St. Maurice (1580-1582; both Escorial). That Philip did not like the latter picture is reported by the contemporary historian of the Escorial, Padre Sigüenza.
El Greco settled in Toledo between 1577 and 1579, and there he remained until his death on April 6 or 7, 1614. His fame spread to other parts of Spain, but most of his commissions were in Toledo and the vicinity.
Personality of the Artist
El Greco was a Renaissance man of great culture, familiar with Greek and Latin literature as well as Italian and Spanish. His remarkable library, the inventory of which is known, demonstrates his broad humanistic interests. He owned copies of the architectural treatises of Leon Battista Alberti, Giacomo da Vignola, Andrea Palladio, and Sebastiano Serlio. El Greco prepared an edition of the Roman architectural treatise of Vitruvius, which has been lost.
El Greco numbered among his intimate friends the leading humanists and intellectuals of Toledo, men such as the scholar Antonio de Covarrubias, Pedro Salazar de Mendoza, Fray Hortensio Paravicino, and the poet Luis de Góngora y Argote. The last two men wrote poems about El Greco's works.
Two works signed by Master Domenikos, an icon (Athens) and a small portable triptych (Modena), have frequently been attributed to El Greco, but, as the patronym is lacking, his authorship cannot be established with certainty. After World War II a vast number of mediocre panels by so-called Madonna painters (Madonneri) were attributed to the youthful El Greco, but they have now been discredited.
Italian Period (ca. 1560-1576)
Signed works of this period by El Greco include the Purification of the Temple (Washington and Minneapolis), Christ Healing the Blind (Parma), St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata (Geneva and Naples), Pietà (Philadelphia), Boy Lighting a Candle (Manhasset), and the portraits Giulio Clovio (Naples) and Vincenzo Anastagi (New York). At this time he signed his paintings in Greek capital letters. His style is notably Venetian in richness of color and illusionistic application of the paint. His interest in the composition of deep space reveals his knowledge of Raphael's murals in the Vatican, Serlio's books on architecture, and contemporary developments in Venice.
Early Spanish Period (1577-1588)
El Greco's first masterpiece of this period is the Assumption of the Virgin (signed and dated 1577; Chicago) from the high altar of S. Domingo el Antiguo, Toledo. Based on Titian's Assumption in the church of S. Maria dei Frari in Venice, it nevertheless shows independence in spatial organization and technical brilliance in the colors. The powerful physical types and certain poses in the Trinity (Madrid) from the same altar reveal El Greco's admiration of the heroic concepts of Michelangelo, whose art he had obviously studied in Rome. At the same time El Greco's color and technical procedures remain Venetian. The Espolio (1577-1579; sacristy of Toledo Cathedral) shows even greater originality in the composition: the figures are brought into the foreground, largely excluding depth, in a way that constitutes El Greco's interpretation of mannerism. But the medieval Byzantine tradition is reflected in the way the heads of the tormentors are placed in superimposed rows.
Masterpieces followed with such rapidity and in such great quantity that only a few can be mentioned. The Martyrdom of St. Maurice (1580-1582; Escorial) is astonishing in the brilliance of color, with the yellow against the blue producing a dazzling effect. The pale tonalities have antecedents in late Roman mannerism, but El Greco achieved expressionistic results using them. Other important paintings are the Crucifixion with Two Donors (Paris) and the Holy Family (New York).
This period culminated in the large canvas Burial of the Conde de Orgaz (1586-1588; church of S. Tomé, Toledo), a work that, combining all aspects of the artist's genius, is generally regarded as his greatest masterpiece and one of the outstanding paintings of all time. The figures are brought into a wall-like composition in the foreground, eliminating space in depth, a method that characterizes mannerism as distinguished from the deep space of High Renaissance composition. Some portraits of El Greco's Toledan contemporaries in the burial scene are identifiable. They are presented in normal human proportions, but the extreme elongation and distortion of the figures in heaven combined with the glacial clouds create a vision of a supernatural world.
Late Style (1588-1614)
El Greco maintained a sense of idealism in his late pictures when the subject demanded it, as in his lovely conception of the Madonna in the Holy Family with St. Anne (Hospital of St. John Extra Muros, Toledo) and the Holy Family with the Magdalen (Cleveland; both ca. 1590-1595). In these compositions the figures are brought into the foreground with only the sky as background, a method of organization that is distinctly mannerist.
El Greco received a number of important commissions at this time. The high altar (1597-1599) of the chapel of S. José, Toledo, is dedicated to St. Joseph with the Christ Child, tenderly interpreted with the tall otherworldly Joseph crowned from above by the wildly distorted and foreshortened angels; the city of Toledo is seen in the background. St. Martin Dividing His Cloak with the Beggar and the Madonna with Saints Agnes and Martina (both Washington) originally occupied the lateral altars of the same chapel. St. Martin impresses the spectator because of the extreme elongation of the partly nude body of the pathetic young beggar. Here El Greco's personal interpretation is fully in evidence in his use of mannerist elongation, a trait widely characteristic of Italian art as early as 1520. The technical brilliance of both pictures is memorable, most especially in the landscape glimpse of Toledo behind St. Martin.
Between 1596 and 1600 El Greco was busily engaged in preparing three large canvases for the high altar of the now-destroyed church of the Colegio de Doña María de Aragón in Madrid. The center of the altarpiece contained the Annunciation (Villanueva y Geltrú), the Adoration of the Shepherds (Bucharest), and the Baptism of Christ (Madrid). Here the supernatural atmosphere is maintained throughout, especially in the Annunciation, where the Madonna and Gabriel are enveloped in swirling clouds removed in time and place from all earthly experience.
El Greco's next major commission involved the altars (1603-1605) of the Hospital of Charity at Illescas in the province of Toledo, where litigation ensued and the trustees of the organization threatened to discharge him and engage a "good painter in the city of Madrid" at a time when El Greco was by far the greatest master in Spain. He finally agreed to accept a miserably inadequate payment, and there remains in the church today the celebrated picture St.Ildefonso, one of the artist's finest interpretations of an austere and ascetic saint.
El Greco's last major commission was for the high altar and lateral altars of the Hospital of St. John Extra Muros, unfinished at his death. The architectural design of the high altar was modified by the artist's son (1625-1628). In one fragment, the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse (New York), El Greco reached the ultimate in the expression of the fantastic vision as described in the Book of Revelations.
El Greco produced numerous religious works dedicated to the Passion of Christ, such as Christ Carrying the Cross and the Crucifixion, as well as two series of the 12 Apostles (all Toledo). His votive pictures include St. Francis, St. Jerome, the Magdalen in Penitence, and St. Peter in Tears. Two famous landscapes survive: the stormy, romantic, and highly subjective View of Toledo (ca. 1595; New York) and the later topographic View and Plan of Toledo (ca. 1610; Toledo), so beautifully painted in thin grayish tones. In the center the artist placed the Hospital of St. John Extra Muros on a cloud so that it could be seen better, as he explains in the legend on the canvas. To these last years too belong his fantastic interpretation of Laocoön and His Sons, with the subjects being strangled by the serpents sent by Neptune—against another mirage of the city of Toledo.
In addition to the portraits in the Burial of the Conde de Orgaz, El Greco executed throughout his career a considerable number of single figures, such as Antonio de Covarrubias (Paris), Fray Hortensio Paravicino (Boston), and Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara (New York), depicting the fiery inquisitor. Equally unforgettable are those in half length in a restricted palette of grays and blacks, thinly painted, such as Jerónimo de Cevallos (Madrid).
The most complete study of El Greco, which includes biography, stylistic development, and a catalogue raisonné with full bibliography and 405 illustrations, is Harold E. Wethey, El Greco and His School (2 vols., 1962). Pál Kelemen, El Greco Revisited: Candia, Venice, Toledo (1961), is largely devoted to a defense of the thesis that El Greco was a Byzantine master. Antonina Vallentin, El Greco (1954; trans. 1955), is an intelligently conceived biography. Paul Guinard, El Greco: Biographical and Critical Study (1956), is a small volume that contains a useful account of the major aspects of the artist's career. □
Greco, El (1541–1614)
Greco, El (1541–1614)
A painter born as Domenikos Theotocopoulos on the island of Crete, and who made his home and career in Spain (thus the Spanish nickname El Greco, “the Greek”). At a young age he painted icons in the Byzantine style, and much of his later work reflects this training. He left Crete for Venice (of which Crete was then a colony), and after a few years moved to Rome, where he was influenced by the works of Titian, with whom he studied, as well as Tintoretto and Michelangelo Buonarroti. Some time in the 1570s he moved to the city of Toledo, Spain, where he had won a commission to paint an altarpiece for the church of Santo Domingo. The Assumption of the Virgin, a canvas 4 meters (13 feet) high, formed the central part of this work. This work gained him renown throughout Spain, and he was commissioned to create altarpieces for the Toledo cathedral and the church of San Tome. He created sculpture for church altars and painted portraits of nobles and church officials as well as a famous landscape, known as View of Toledo, that remains one of the best known paintings of his time. His elongated and rapturous figures are cast in a pale, luminous light. This unique and personal style was startlingly advanced for its day and had few imitators until the Expressionist school of painting developed in the twentieth century.
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