painter, whose work, with that of Francisco de Goya and
represents the acme of Spanish art.
El Greco (meaning "The Greek")
was born in Candia, now Iráklion, Crete (then a possession of the
Republic of Venice), in 1541 and was named Domenikos Theotokopoulos. Details
of his early life and training are sketchy, but he probably first studied
painting in his native city. Although no works from his first years survive,
they were probably painted in the late Byzantine style popular in Crete
at the time. Reminiscences of this style are seen in his later work. He
was an erudite man, whose taste for classical and contemporaneous literature
seems to have developed in his youth.
Work in Venice and Rome
About 1566, El Greco went
to Venice, where he remained until 1570. He was employed in the workshop
of Titian and was also strongly influenced by
Tintoretto, both masters
of the High Renaissance. Such early Venetian paintings as his Christ
Healing the Blind Man (1566?-1567, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden) demonstrate
his assimilation of Titianesque color and of Tintoretto's figural compositions
and use of deep spatial recesses. Further Italian inspiration came during
the years El Greco spent in Rome, from 1570 to 1576. The sculptural
qualities of the work of Italian artist Michelangelo inspired him, as
is evident in his Pietà (1570-1572, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
and Purification of the Temple (1570-1575, Minneapolis Institute of
Arts). A study of Roman architecture also reinforced the stability of
his compositions, which often include views of Roman Renaissance buildings.
Move to Spain
In Rome he met several Spaniards
associated with the church in Toledo, who may have persuaded him to
come to Spain. In 1576 he left Italy and, after a brief sojourn in Malta,
arrived in Toledo in the spring of 1577. He quickly began work on his
first Spanish commission, producing for the Church of Santo Domingo
el Antiguo the sumptuous Assumption of the Virgin (1577, Art Institute
of Chicago), a painting that marks a turning point in his art. Although
compositionally based on Titian's Assumption (1516-1518) in Santa Maria
dei Frari in Venice, the colors and spatial relationships are less Italianate.
A move toward nonnormative colors, groupings, and figural proportions
became more marked in El Greco's art with each successive phase.
El Greco was anxious to be
given the commission to fresco the walls of the newly built royal monastery-palace
of El Escorial near Madrid, completed in 1582. He submitted several
paintings to King Philip II for approval but was denied the commission.
One of these, The Triumph of the Holy League (1578-1579, versions in
El Escorial and in the National Gallery, London), proves his ability
to combine complex political iconography with medieval motifs. El Greco
also worked for Toledo Cathedral: The Disrobing of Christ (1577-1579)
for the sacristy presents a splendid image of Christ in a rich red garment,
closely surrounded by his captors. The work caused the first of several
lawsuits brought by the artist against his patrons, who objected to
its high price.
In 1586 El Greco painted
one of his greatest masterpieces, The Burial of Count Orgaz, for the
Church of Santo Tomé in Toledo. This work, still in place, portrays
a 14th-century Toledan nobleman laid in his grave (in actuality situated
just below the painting) by Saints Stephen and Augustine. Above, the
count's soul rises to a heaven densely populated with angels, saints,
and contemporary political figures. The Burial also manifests
El Greco's typical elongation of figures and a horror vacui (dread
of unfilled spaces), features of his art that became more pronounced
in later years. These characteristics may be associated with international
mannerism, which is still evident in the art of El Greco sometime after
it had ceased to be widely popular in European painting. El Greco's
intensely personal vision was rooted in his highly cultivated spirituality.
Indeed, there is present in his canvases a mystical atmosphere similar
to that evoked in the writings of such contemporaneous Spanish mystics
as Saint Teresa of Ávila and Saint John of the Cross, although
no evidence exists that El Greco had any personal contact with them.
El Greco was
a prosperous man. He had a large house in Toledo, where he received
members of the nobility and the intellectual elite, such as the poets
Luis de Góngora and Fray Hortensio Felix de Paravicino, whose
portrait, painted by El Greco from 1609 to 1610, is now in the Museum
of Fine Arts, Boston. El Greco also painted views of the city of Toledo
itself, such as View of Toledo (1600-1610, Metropolitan Museum of Art,
New York City), even though landscape was a genre traditionally neglected
by Spanish artists.
A feverish intensity can
be sensed in many of El Greco's canvases dating from the 1590s until
the time of his death. Baptism of Christ (signed in Greek, as was the
artist's custom, 1596-1600) and Adoration of the Shepherds (1612-1614),
both in the Prado, seem to pulsate with an eerie light generated by
the holy figures themselves. In addition, the Adoration figures are
enveloped by a steamy haze, observable in other late works, which intensifies
the mystical nature of the event.
Subjects of classical mythology,
such as the Laocoön (1610-1614, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.),
and Old Testament history, such as the unfinished apocalyptic scene
Opening of the Fifth Seal (1608-1614, Metropolitan Museum), attest to
El Greco's humanistic learning and his brilliantly personal and novel
approach to traditional themes. El Greco died in Toledo on April 7,
1614, and he was buried there in Santo Domingo el Antiguo.