DEFINITION OF ART
El Greco (c.1541-1614)
Considered to be one of the great Old Masters, and the creator of some outstanding Christian art, El Greco (full name Domenikos Theotocopoulos) was a Greek artist, whose dramatic expressionist style only found true appreciation in the 20th century. He is regarded as a key influence in Expressionism and was undoubtedly years ahead of his time. A major figure in Spanish painting, and an important contributor to Catholic Counter-Reformation Art, he is best known for his elongated tortured looking figures, managing to combine Byzantine traditions with Western academic art. Paradoxically, his intensely spiritual style of religious art was welcomed by the Catholic Church in Spain, despite its typically (cavalier) Mannerist handling of perspective and proportion. His most notable works include Holy Trinity (1577, Prado, Madrid), The Disrobing of Christ (1577, Toledo Cathedral), Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586, Church of San Tome, Toledo), View of Toledo (1597, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY), Portrait of a Cardinal (1600, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY), Portrait of Fray Felix Hortensio Paravicino (c.1605, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), and The Opening of the Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse (1608, Metropolitan Museum NY).
Many of El Greco's works can be
Little is known of his early life, but it is believed he moved to Venice around 1567 to pursue an art career - there is speculation that he apprenticed at Titian's studio, who by that time was already in his 80's but was still actively painting. In 1570 he moved to Rome and established his own workshop. During this time he absorbed some elements of the Mannerism movement but found that the influence of Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520) (both of whom were dead) was still dominant. Although El Greco condemned Michelangelo as a 'good man, but he did not know how to paint', his influence can be seen in some of El Grecos works including Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple (1600, National Gallery, London). Even so, El Greco fought the artistic beliefs of his day and was determined to forge ahead with his own innovations. He found this easier to do, when he moved to Toledo in Spain in 1577, where the ghosts of Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian were quieter.
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His first major commission was for a set of paintings for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo. These paintings established his reputation in the city. This was followed by 2 works for Philip of Spain, the Allegory of the Holy League and Martyrdom of St. Maurice (1580-82, Real Monasterio, Escorial). It is not clear why, but the King was not impressed with the paintings, and so ended all future royal commissions. In 1586 he painted The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586, Church of San Tome, Toledo), perhaps his best known work. Other works followed including 3 altars for the Chapel of San Jose in Toledo (159799), three paintings for the Colegio de Dona Maria de Aragon (15961600) and a painting of Saint Ildefonso the Hospital de la Caridad at Illescas (160305). In 1608, he received his last major commission for a work on Saint John the Baptist for the Hospital Tavera. While working on this commission, he became ill and died a month later in April 1614. He is buried at the Church of Santo Domingo el Antigua.
As El Greco's style of painting matured he tended to place the dramatic over the descriptive. His figures were longer, paler and taller than they could ever be in real life. There was certain violence in his application of paint as he moved away from High Renaissance realism towards an early form of expressionism. A key characteristic of his work is the treatment of light, and many of his figures appear to be lit from within or reflect light from an unidentified source.
Other important works include The Disrobing of Christ (1577-79, Toledo Cathedral, Toledo), which is one of El Greco's most famous altarpieces, The Adoration of the Shepherds (1612-14, Prado Museum, Madrid), The Annunciation (1575, Prado), Christ on the Cross Adored by Donors, (1585-90, Louvre, Paris), The Repentant Peter (1600, Phillips Collection, Washington DC), Portrait of a Cardinal (1600, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Saints John the Evangelist and Francis (1600, Uffizi Gallery, Florence) and Christ Carrying the Cross (1600, Prado Museum, Madrid).
In 1580 there appeared at the Royal monastery
of El Escorial in Spain, a Greek painter of Venetian training, named Domenikos
Theotokoupolos. The name being most unhandy, they called him "the
Greek", El Greco. He had a commission from the king to paint the
Martyrdom of St. Mauritius. The theme was refractory. In the foreground
the Roman general, Mauritius, consults his Christian officers, while a
multitude of his soldiers in the middle distance await martyrdom or already
lie headless before the executioner. A glory of angels, above, applauds
the martyrs and prepares to receive their souls. It is a most impressive
picture, but it has holes and confused passages. El Greco had probably
seen the picture of St. Maurice by Jacopo Pontormo
(1494-1556) in the Pitti, at Florence, for he forces the horror and pathos
in much the same way.
Before coming to Toledo about 1575, El Greco had had a varied and cosmopolitan career. He was born at Candia in 1541. The capital city of Crete was then a Venetian possession, and a boy growing up there in the 1550s would have had three kinds of painting before him - Byzantine painting of the severe traditional style, Byzantine painting much influenced compositionally by the Italian manner, and Venetian painting in the Renaissance style. One may imagine some hesitation in the youth, and possibly a hope of adapting the new Renaissance technique to express more vividly and passionately the static solemnity of the ikons.
In 1570 the famous Croatian miniaturist,
Giulio Clovio, recommended El Greco to Cardinal Farnese as a young and
able disciple of the great cinquecento
master Titian. We may reasonably suppose that
El Greco, as pupil or assistant, had been with Titian for the seven or
eight previous years. Whether he came to Venice to study with Titian,
or whether his parents earlier joined the colony of four thousand Greeks
at Venice, we do not know. We may be sure, however, that the young Cretan
remained an exotic, and yielded little to the voluptuous urbanity of his
civic and artistic surroundings.
It is customary to place in the Italian years the strange and thrilling genre painting, Man is Love, Woman is Fire, the Devil blows it. The proverb is Spanish, but it may have been current elsewhere. There are several versions of this picture, and a study for the central figure. The picture has the strangest fascination. A woman carefully touches a bunch of tow or tinder with a candle while she puffs carefully with pursed lips; a man in profile at the right observes the act. At the left, a big ape, apparently an amiable embodiment of the devil, leans over the woman's hand and gives an aiding puff. One sees only the busts in shadow and the faces spectrally glowing from the light thrown up by the candle. It is an odd picture even to have been conceived in Italy. Only Savoldo and Correggio at this time had played with such theatrical effects of illumination, and they in more conventional mood. The workmanship of the several versions of this picture probably belongs to Greco's early Spanish period, but this issue is relatively unimportant. What is important is that Greco could create such a masterpiece of sardonic romanticism, and decline to follow up the vein. It is the single playful episode in the most serious of careers, and its playfulness is of a sinister sort.
Just how life at Toledo developed in El Greco these new capacities for emotion and this new pictorial language we may only guess. One may imagine that the mere loneliness of a proud, irritable, pleasure-loving alien would have exaggerated a natural introversion. It is not a happy painter who needed to hire musicians to play during his meals. Perhaps the move from the most compromising people in the world to the most uncompromising may have fostered the intransigent mood with which El Greco was born. In Italy the desire for grandeur and decorum set limits to expression in all the arts. Not so in Spain, where a humanistic moderation in expression would have seemed absurdly and gratuitously insincere, and where nerves were ever braced to welcome any attack the artist might make upon them. Into this absolutism of the emotions El Greco readily fell, with the result that he became more Spanish than any of his painter contemporaries in Spain.
The central panel of the altarpiece
of Saint Domingo, an Assumption of the Virgin (1577-79, Art Institute
of Chicago), is, save for a few very sharp edges of the draperies and
some very heavy and edgy darks, without Spanish features. There is no
distortion; the dense groups about the empty tomb and the flight of angels
about the Virgin, perilously balanced on her crescent moon, are composed
in Titian's fashion with an active equipoise of opposing diagonal thrusts.
The colour is both brilliant and cool, with rather little of the Venetian
crimsons, green and yellow dominating. It is as if Greco had had in mind
the rather equable, cool colouing of Veronese, whose superb adolescent
angels he surely imitated, or the rare blond pictures of Bassano, which
avoid the obvious colour harmonies. Otherwise it is a typical masterpiece
of what we may with entire respect call the operatic mood of the Venetian
Renaissance. The poses and gestures are carefully chosen for compositional
effectiveness. The fundamental contrast between the masculine ardor of
the group of apostles in the lower order and the feminine ecstasy of the
Virgin and her celestial attendants is strongly asserted and constitutes
much of the emotional appeal of the picture. It is a very fine Greco,
but also a Greco of calculated and academic sort.
To realize the difference between this admirable Assumption in the Venetian manner, versus one in Greco's own idiom one need only compare the Assumption at San Vicente, which Greco finished 35 years later, in 1613, only a few years before he died. This Madonna, elongated and distorted, sways to the right; from below a strong angel, hovering to the left, which supports her. Two angels at her right draw away in ecstatic observation, at her left is an incandescence which resolves itself into angelic forms. The only link with earth is a few flowers which grow up from the bottom of the frame towards the delicately drooping feet of the supporting angel. And the guarantee that this angel can furnish the needed support is given only by one strong wing that fills the right center of the canvas. Harmonizing with the elongation of the figures, the tall rectangle, as is usual in the later Grecos, is no less than two squares high. This would ordinarily be regarded as an ugly and refractory proportion. But before such a picture no one thinks about proportions. It is simply a surface tremendously alive, through slashes of colour and contrasts of light and dark, with no arresting contours anywhere. One might say that the forms are swept energetically by light, or better, that the coruscation of the pigment incidentally creates form. One may again think of the composition as a progress from left to right, from the gloom of the lower left corner to the ineffable gleam of the upper right. Before it one feels an awe, an ecstasy, a bewilderment. Everything is most powerfully suggested, almost nothing is explicitly stated. We are worlds away, in a wild and irresistible poetry, from the noble prose of the earlier Assumption.
of Christ (El Espolio)
When El Greco was called to El Escorial
in 1580 he probably went with high hopes, expecting from Philip II that
constant patronage which his own master, Titian, had enjoyed. But he either
failed to divine or completely disregarded what was in the king's mind.
Philip in summoning a disciple of Titian, who had died about four years
earlier, wanted a series of Titianesque paintings. Instead he got the
Martyrdom of St. Maurice, perhaps the first important picture in
El Greco's individual style, disliked it, and El Greco went back somewhat
disappointed and discredited to Toledo.
Even to a convinced admirer of El Greco, the St. Maurice is a disconcerting masterpiece. No wonder it baffled a mere king. Gone is the sound athleticism derived from Tintoretto - or rather, it lingers only partially in the superb adolescent angels hovering in the glory above. The numerous bare legs have no wholesome Venetian or masculine brawniness, and they serve only approximately the purpose of support. They are pallid, with little muscular suggestion. With the bodies they serve ambiguously, they have taken on an incorporeal character. Hands and fingers no longer look capable of grasping weapons; fingers flicker in distraught fashion. Eye rarely meets eye the martyrs elect are united only in a common mood of devout resignation. As for colour, the usual martial reds are absent, the balance is between cold yellows and spectral blues. We are dealing with a grisly fact - a military massacre, and the treatment is completely other-worldly. The martyrdom is viewed in some eternal aspect, as a vision or hallucination common to all Christians who meditate intently on the legend.
The Burial of
Count Orgaz (El Entierro)
To say that a picture defies words is almost a cliche, but it is perfectly true of the Burial - El Entierro. One revels in the moss green and crimson vestments of the two saints and in the devotional or fanatical intentness of all the faces, modulated from a ceremonial composure to an ecstatic awareness of the scene of reception in heaven. And while El Greco pushes the expression of awe and amazement nearly to a breaking point, his terms of expression are men of a heroic type, if fantastically so, who cannot break, while he extending the central theme in a fashion that an ancient Greek, nourished on Aristotlean criticism, would have approved.
The legend tells that nearly three hundred
years before this picture was painted Don Gonzales Ruiz, governor of Orgaz,
abounded in piety and rebuilt the Church of St. Tome. When, in 1323, they
planned to move his body to that church, St. Stephen and St. Augustine
came down from heaven and carried the body to its new sepulchre where
they placed it in the presence of all, saying: "Such reward receive
those who serve God and His saints." Greco's commision contract for
the painting required that St. Augustine and St. Stephen must hold the
head and the feet "with many people." and that "above this
should be a heaven open in all glory". So much and no more guidance
did the rector of the Church of S. Tome give to the Greek genius.
The Resurrection (Prado, Madrid) shows the extravagance of El Greco's invention at its height. The nude Christ rises with his swelling banner above a welter of nude Roman guard bodies. All this is fantastic. The Roman guards were armoured, not nude; and they were few in number. The distortions are extreme. But the general sense of triumph is completely realized. Christ seems risen from a stormy human sea, which he dominates. Fear and admiration alternate in such faces as the light thrusts upon our view. The constructional elements in this picture are flamelike flashes of light which, while they mark the position and action of limbs, also have a sort of independent existence. These flamelike elements are in active balance. These upward flashes seem to sustain the body of the Christ. Even the strangely bent back hands, entirely ambiguous as emotion, serve a necessary function of support. Much in the picture is reminiscent of Michelangelo's Last Judgment fresco, but the forms are in process of dissolution, and the balance is not of mass or movement but of dark and light. Everything has an extraordinary reality, but reality of dream or hallucination, not that of observation.
For the distortions which are usual in Greco's pictures after 1588, various explanations have been offered. Pacheeo complained that Greco painted very carefully and at the last retouched roughly "to make the colours distinct and discordant, and to slash them cruelly with brush strokes to affect strength. And this I call working in order to be poor."
An ingenious Spanish oculist has diagnosed
Greco's astigmatism, backwards - that is, he has made lenses through which,
to a normal eye, a Rubens will seem to have the distortions proper to
El Greco. At first blush such experiments are persuasive, but against
the theory of abnormal eyesight we must set the fact that from beginning
to end of his career El Greco could and did produce some great portrait
paintings in their true proportions and without distortion of any
sort. He once wrote on the elongation of his figures that the distant
lights seemed taller than they are. In short, there is every reason to
suppose that he knew perfectly well what he was about, and simply found
in the elongation, asymmetries, and arbitrary impact of light, a language
in which he could express himself. In one way or another the expression
was tragic, and El Greco may be thought of as applying pictorially that
rhetoric of calculated hyperbole, of suspense, and purple patches which
tragedy has always employed, and without reproach.
But there is some great portrait art by El Greco. The bust, full face, in the Metropolitan Museum of New York, which may represent the painter himself, is entirely unforgettable for its fairly plastic emphasis of the ravaged forms and also for its stately melancholy. It would have been easy to make such a face merely pitiful, but pity is the last feeling one admits as he views this half-burnt-out hero. The actual handling draws much from Titian and Tintoretto, but it is more direct, simple and drastic in construction. The eyes are those of a possessed person - wide open, but illumined from within.
If one could own just one portrait by El
Greco let it be the Fray Feliz Hortensio Pallavicino - better even
than the obviously more salient and decorative Cardinal Guevara,
although both are consummately fine pictures. If the Fray Hortensio is
better, it is because of his look of a magnificent half-tamed human animal,
and because it was more difficult to make something out of the blacks
and creamy whites of his robes than it was to make something out of Guevara's
crimson vestments. The Fray Hortensio is at once most reserved in its
effect, with a sense of passion smouldering under the general discretion.
It is hard to realize that it is dated in 1609, at the moment when Greco
had begun to cast discretion aside. Evidently there was something about
these great prelates that sobered El Greco and made him look outward.
At his moment of extreme introversion, he becomes once more an extrovert
on the impact of personalities which he felt to be greater than his own.
Of these latest Grecos nothing is finer
or more characteristic than the Adoration of the Shepherds (New
York). The surface is tumultuous, like a broken sea. The light shoots
out radially from the nude body of the Christchild - a motive borrowed
from Correggio or Baroccio, but asserted with a furious energy which they
neither commanded nor approved. Everywhere flashes of light - profiles,
flickering hands, gracile feet, edges of robes, frayed edges of distant
clouds - just one stable point of identification - the illumined soffit
of an arch in the upper center - and it gives way to a hurtling trio of
nude angels whirling against the gloom like a human Catherine wheel. Everywhere
distortions at will - heads without occiputs, features slewed off axis,
limbs almost detached from their bodies. The whole effect is of a cosmic
rapture, orgiastic a little terrible in its accent. According to your
capacity for emotion and your patience, it is a thrilling masterpiece
or a disagreeable puzzle.
We may appropriately take leave of El Greco - the greatest of the late Spanish Renaissance Artists - with the view of his beloved View of Toledo (1604-14, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). It is only an epitome of a city that straggles from the towered castles at the left across the spectral bridge to the little group of buildings from which the tower of the cathedral and the mass of the Alcazar rise bleakly against a slaty sky. Whirling clouds are broken by light that struggles down and smites the contour of hills, the curve of roads, and the crisp foliation of little trees. Any moment the storm may break and efface the vision. But you will never forget the apparition of the cruel and lovely city seen at hazard. It is one of the greatest romantic landscapes in Amiel's sense that it is really just the exteriorization of an apocalyptic state of mind. To endow the most intense and tragic emotions with a kind of eternal value - such was the secret of El Greco's always troubled, always triumphant art.
It took several generations to pass before the true significance of El Greco's art was to be recognised. His skill as a painter was praised, but his anti-natural style was misunderstood and criticized as 'eccentric' and 'odd'. It was not until the 1900s that a first major re-appraisal of his status within the history of art took place and his originality was 'discovered'. His works inspired major artists including the likes of Paul Cezanne. El Greco is now rated among the most outstanding Mannerist artists of the 16th and 17th centuries.
Works by El Greco can be seen in the best art museums across the globe, notably the Prado in Madrid.
For information about the best artists, see: Art Encyclopedia