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Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Doménikos Theotokópoulos - El Greco

"It was a great moment.  A pure righteous conscience stood on one
 tray of the balance, an empire on the other, and it was you, man's
 conscience, that tipped the scales.  This conscience will be able to
 stand before the Lord as the Last Judgement and not be judged, 
because human dignity, purity and valor fill even God with terror... 
Art is not submission and rules, but a demon which smashes the 
moulds...Greco's inner-archangel's breast had thrust him on 
savage freedom's single hope, this world's most excellent garret."

Nikos Kazantzakis in Report to Greco.

Adoration of the Shepherds, 1612-1614.  Painted at the end of
El Greco's life, there are several versions.  This one was supposed
to hang at his pantheon, but it was placed elsewhere in the church.
Image courtesy of the Museo del Prado, Madrid. 

He was born in Crete in 1541, when it was part of the Republic of Venice and a center of post-Byzantine art.  Doménikos Theotokópoulos came from a prosperous urban family.  He was trained as an icon painter and became a master of that tradition.  Like many Greek artists, he moved to Venice when he was 26.  Here he became a disciple of Titian, who was in his 80s but still very active.  He lived there for a few years before leaving for Rome in 1570.  It was here that he was given part of the moniker by which he later would be best known - El Greco.

Portrait considered by many to be a self-portrait, 1604.

In Rome, he was able to secure quarters in the palace of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the famous patron of the arts.  He joined a painters' academy and set up a workshop, but never received any large commissions.  Yet he established a reputation for his portraits and devotional paintings.  His criticism of Michelangelo, who died in 1564, did not endear him to the art establishment.  He made an offer to Pope Pius V to paint over the Sistine Chapel, and stated that "he [Michelangelo] was a good man, but didn't know how to paint".  This, despite Michelangelo's influence on his work.  Farnese asked him to leave.

Portrait of Giulio Clovio 1571-1572.  Clovio was a good friend and supporter.

He moved to Madrid in 1577, then to Toledo.  Toledo was at that time one of the largest cities in Europe, and the religious capital of Spain.  His first large commission there was for a group of paintings for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, where he was later interred.  Two years later, he had completed nine paintings, and his famous painting of the disrobing of Christ for the sacristy of the Cathedral of Toledo.  He did, however, fail to earn the patronage of King Philip of Spain.

The Disrobing of Christ, 1577-1579. 

He also worked as an architect and sculptor, though little of that work survives. His ideas about sculpture echoed his views on painting, seeking novelty and freedom and going against the established rules.  Because his ideas were against the mainstream, he was not accepted in the prevailing architectural circles.

The Assumption of the Virgin, 1577-1579.
Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

While in Spain, he wrote treatises on art, but these are lost.  We do know something of his ideas because he wrote marginalia in his books.  When he died, he left a working library of 130 books, including an annotated Vasari - considered the founder of art historical writing.

The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, 1586-1588, considered one of El Greco's finest works.
Señor Gonzalo Ruiz de Toledo was the Count of Orgaz, and very pious.  The painting shows the
story of his funeral:  St. Augustine and St. Esteban were coming down from heaven to bury him
when a voice stated, "Such an award is received by those who serve God and its saints."
Painting is approximately 15' 9" by 11'10".  Image courtesy of Santo Toḿe, Toledo, Spain.

It's unclear where his nickname originated.  In Italy, calling a man by his country of origin was common, and "Greco" is Italian for "Greek".  But the "El" is the curious part.  In Spanish, he would be called "El Griego".  It could be that the "El" was taken from the Spanish, or may be from a Venetian dialect of the time.  He was not called "El Greco" until after his death.  While he was alive he was known in both Italy and Spain as Dominico Greco.

He always signed his work in Greek.  Sometimes, as in this
example, he wrote "Epoiei" - "he made it" - after his name.
He also was known to use "Deixas", "he displayed it", and
"Kres", or "Cretan".  Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

His work puzzled his contemporaries.  In fact, he was ridiculed and scorned for being incomprehensible after his death.  Through the years he has been accused of being mad, under the influence of marijuana, or suffering from astigmatism (to account for his elongated figures).  However, if he was astigmatic, he would've adapted to it.  His elongated figures were his chosen style.  As a professor of Spanish, John Armstrong Crow, said, "Astigmatism could never give quality to a canvas, nor talent to a dunce."

View of Toledo, 1597 - 1599.
Image courtesy of the Met.

El Greco regarded color as the most important element in a painting, even over form.  He sought to affect his viewers' emotions.  He has been praised in particular for his portraits, where it is claimed he conveys the character of his subjects.

The Opening of the Fifth Seal, or The Vision of Saint John, 1608-1614.
Image courtesy of the Met.

Considered so much an individual, he has not been assigned to a conventional school, although his style has been called a blend of Byzantine and Western art. But scholars differ in trying to categorize him.  Some claim to see the Byzantine influence from when he was an icon painter.  Others squarely call him a Spanish artist and the founder of the Spanish school.  Yet others say his work from Italy belongs to Italian art, and his work from Spain to Spanish art.

Laocoön, 1610 - 1614.  Laocoön was a Trojan priest of Poseidon who tried
to warn the Trojans in vain about the wooden horse.  The Gods punished
him and his sons by sending sea serpents.  Image courtesy of the National Gallery.

He was not appreciated until the 20th century, where he has been regarded as a precursor of Expressionism and Cubism.  In 1908, the first comprehensive catalog of his works was published by Manuel Bartolomé Cossio, who presented him as the founder of the Spanish school.  He started to be considered as ahead of his time.

Saint Martin and the Beggar, 1597 -1599.  This illustrates the story
of Saint Martin of Tours, a soldier in Roman France, who split his
coat in half to share with a beggar.  Later Christ appeared to him
wearing the cloth, praising him for his charity.
Image courtesy of the National Gallery.

His influence on other artists is well-known.  Some of the artists he had an impact on include Eugéne Delacroix, Édouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Picasso, the Blaue Reiter group, the German Expressionists, the Symbolists, and even Jackson Pollock, who did 60 complete drawing compositions in contemplation of El Greco. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke was inspired by him, and Nikos Kazantzakis named his autobiography, Report to Greco, as a tribute to him.

Portrait of El Greco's son, Jorge Manuel Theotokópoulos, 1600-1605.
Picasso's Portrait of a Painter After El Greco, 1950.
Both images courtesy of Wikipedia.

There is much dissension about how many and what works are his.  A few new works have been discovered, and one always hopes for the possibility of more.  The exact number of his extant works is still to be determined, as scholars battle it out.

Madonna and Child with Saint Martina and Saint Agnes, 1597 - 1599.
Image courtesy of the National Gallery.

Although he never intended to spend his whole life in Toledo, it was there that he died.  He lived in style with a female companion with whom he had a son who also became an artist.  He fell ill, and died a month later in 1614, at the age of 73.

A Cardinal (possibly Cardinal Niño de Guevara), 1600 - 1601.
Image courtesy of the Met

He was lucky to enjoy enough success during his lifetime that he was able to earn a comfortable living.  But this lonely genius has finally been vindicated, and is now celebrated as an extraordinary artist.

Unless otherwise stated, images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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