1. Greece; Greeks
2. Greek and
(Doménikos Theotokopoulos) (1541-1614)
Painter called “the Greek” because he was born in Crete. He studied in Italy, worked in Rome from about 1570, and by 1577 had settled in Toledo, Spain. He painted elegant portraits and intensely emotional religious scenes with increasingly distorted figures and flickering light; for example, The Burial of Count Orgaz 1586 (church of San Tomé, Toledo).
His passionate insistence on rhythm and movement and vehement desire for intensity of expression were conveyed by the elongation and distortion of figures, and unusual and disturbing color schemes with calculated discords of crimson, lemon yellow, green and blue, and livid flesh tones. Perspective and normal effects of lighting were disregarded, and the significance of the young El Greco’s remarks to Giulio Clovio, that the daylight blinded him to the inner light, is apparent. In a modern and “expressionist” fashion he was projecting a vision conceived in the mind and emotions. The characteristic El Greco can be seen in the Martyrdom of St Maurice, 1581–84 (Madrid, Escorial). The huge The Burial of Count Orgaz combined austere Spanish dignity with rapturous sublimity. Later compositions include the Agony in the Garden (National Gallery, London and other versions) and the soaring vertical ascent of the Pentecost, Resurrection and Adoration of the Shepherds (Prado).
He was trained by Greek monks in his native island of Crete as an icon painter in the Byzantine tradition, and habitually signed his paintings in Greek characters. As a young artist he went to Italy and, Crete being then a Venetian possession, Venice was his first objective. He is stated to have been a pupil of Titian, though his early work seems to owe more to Bassano and Tintoretto, and it is possible that he was also influenced by Correggio. In 1570, as recorded by his friend, the Dalmatian miniature painter Giulio Clovio, who gained him an introduction to Cardinal Farnese, he went on to Rome, where he stayed for six years. It is said that he spoke in somewhat contemptuous terms of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, though his Christ driving the Traders from the Temple (in several versions) shows him to have borrowed figures and details of composition not only from the Venetians but also from Michelangelo and Raphael.
He settled in Toledo 1577, his aim no doubt in going to Spain being to work for Philip II, a lover of Venetian art. Failing to please the king's taste, he did not take up residence in the royal capital, Madrid. Toledo, however, was still much the larger of the two cities, a center of industry and craftsmanship and also the ecclesiastical capital, headquarters of the Jesuits and the Counter-Reformation. A foreigner when he arrived, speaking only Greek and Italian, El Greco stayed at Toledo for the rest of his life, and the religious and spiritual character of his works links him inseparably with the spirit of the time and place. His work was evidently much approved and in demand, though the decay of the city seems to have brought him to poverty in his later years. His complex inheritance as an artist, his Spanish background and personal genius, combine to give a unique quality to his achievement.
Italian influences remained in his work until about 1580, and in his first commissions at Toledo. These included a now dismembered altarpiece for Santo Domingo el Antiguo, the Trinity (Prado) and Assumption (Chicago), the latter based on the Assumption of Titian, and the Espolio, or Disrobing of Christ, for Toledo Cathedral.
The later period of his life produced portraits superbly characterized (and refuting the supposition that El Greco’s elongations in other works were due to some defect of eyesight). Cardinal Nińo de Guevara (New York, Metropolitan Museum) is one of his great portraits, and a remarkable collection is in the Prado. His famous and single pure landscape, View of Toledo (Metropolitan Museum), typically selects the intense and abnormal atmosphere of storm. It may be noted that El Greco, as in his Boy blowing on Coals (Naples), was the first of those painters who exploited the mysterious and rich effects of shadow produced by artificial light.
The many duplicates, revisions and versions of his paintings suggest a busy studio, though the part played by assistants does not seem clear and he had no follower of note. This is hardly surprising in view of his essential individuality. On Spanish painting his influence was small, though Velazquez studied his portraiture and method of design.