Who was El Greco and what did he do? Information on Spanish painter El Greco Biography, life story, paintings and works.
El Greco; (1541-1614), Spanish painter, who became one of the most important artists of Spain and the great interpreter and formulator of the fervor of the Spanish Counter-Reformation. No painter before or after him evolved a style better suited to the expression of the mysteries of the Catholic faith. It is a paradoxical fact that this artist, whose earliest impressions of painting must have been formed by the rigidly hieratic Byzantine conventions, developed during the years of his long career in Spain a style of such extraordinary freedom and emotional intensity that he remains even today one of the major expressionist painters. His effects result largely from his distortion of natural forms and his use of sharply contrasting brilliant colors. The imitation of his techniques and the striving by modern artists for effects similar to his have contributed to the immense popularity of El Greco’s paintings in the 20th century.
El Greco was born in Candia on Crete, one of the Greek islands. His real name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, and it was the one he usually affixed to his paintings in Greek letters. In Italy he came to be known as II Greco, “the Greek,” and later, in Spain, he was called El Greco.
El Greco must have begun his studies in Crete, probably receiving training in the very ancient art of icon painting. Throughout his life he employed arrangements and motifs derived from the Byzantine tradition, and knowledge of his art would be much enriched by a wider study of the kinds of religious paintings that he might have seen and studied in the churches and monasteries of Crete.
It is not known when El Greco left Crete, nor the reasons for his departure. He went to Venice, probably when he was not yet 20, for in the 1560’s that city was a flourishing artistic center where a promising young artist would wish to study. In Venice he became the pupil of the aging Titian and had the opportunity to study the works of Tintoretto and Jacopo Bassano, whose influences are clearly apparent in his work. By the fall of 1570 he had arrived in Rome where, through the mediation of the artist Giulio Clovio, he was given lodging in the Farnese Palace. Fulvio Orsini, librarian of Cardinal Farnese, owned several pictures by El Greco, including the famous portrait of Clovio now in the Pinacoteca of Capodimonte in Naples. The most marked effect on El Greco of his stay in Rome was the strong impression he received there of Italian mannerism, especially of Michelangelo’s late works. These monumental forms and compositions continued to be reflected in El Greco’s work long after he left Italy.
Early in 1577, El Greco went to Toledo, Spain, where he spent the rest of his life. Possibly he had been lured to Spain by the knowledge that Philip II was then engaged in building the stupendous monastery and mausoleum of the Escorial. The intensely religious monarch commissioned two works from El Greco—the Dream of Philip II and the Martyrdom of St. Mauritius and the Theban Legion (both in the Escorial), but he was not pleased with the latter painting and did not support El Greco with his patronage. It was not the court, accordingly, for which El Greco did most of his great work, but the church, which, incidentally, was so influential in Toledo that the government was forced to transfer from Toledo to Madrid about 1560 and later to Valladolid.
Documents and inventories provide us with some knowledge of the kind of aristocratic life that El Greco lived in Spain. He occupied an apartment in the old palace of the Marquess de Villena, a. residence built for the treasurer of King Peter the Cruel in the middle of the 14th century. After a period spent in some other house in Toledo around the turn of the century, El Greco returned to the huge palace for the last 10 years of his life. The Museum of El Greco, now in the so-called Casa del Greco, is at least near the site of the Villena palace.
El Greco amassed a large library that reveals his literary and philosophical interests, and he is said to have written about works of art, although none of his writing has survived. The year after he arrived in Toledo a lady of apparently good family presented El Greco with a son, Jorge Manuel, who studied painting with his father and became his chief assistant in carrying out important projects. These sometimes included not only paintings but also the construction of the frames of retables and their embellishment, the architecture of altars, sculpture, and gilding. El Greco is said to have been entertained, like Leonardo, with music while he dined and to have balanced on occasion his shrewd and exigent dealings with his patrons with a lordly kind of generosity. He died in Toledo in April 1614.
Works in Italy:
There is no evidence that El Greco ever received any commissions in the fairly long time that he lived in Italy. A number of paintings, however, are assigned to this period of his career. Among the more important subjects he painted at this time are the Healing of the Blind Man and the Cleansing of the Temple, of which several versions exist. Some of the versions of these two themes were also painted after his arrival in Spain. There are also some portraits and genre scenes in which El Greco experimented with candlelight and which reflect his interest in the chiaroscuro of the Italian forerunners of Caravaggio.
Works in Spain:
El Greco’s first important pictures painted in Spain are the striking Espolio (Disrobing of Christ, Sacristy of the Cathedral of Toledo), Byzantine in theme, and the series of pictures that he painted to adorn the high altar and the side altars of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. The Assumption of the Virgin, the chief painting of this complex, is now in the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Trinity (Throne of Grace) that was originally above it is now in the Prado, Madrid. The Assumption is intimately related to Titian’s great treatment of the same subject in the Church of the Frari in Venice. The Espolio, however, showing an impressive Christ in solemn isolation from the turmoil of crowding figures, proclaims El Greco’s originality.
His complete mastery of rendering the contrast between the world below and the world of the spirit above is established in his best-known picture, the Burial of the Count of Orgaz (Church of Santo Tomé, Toledo), which he painted between 1586 and 1588. It commemorates a miracle of the first half of the 14th century at the interment of the young Count of Orgaz, when Saints Stephen and Augustine returned to earth to honor him. This solemnly beautiful painting shows the earthly ceremony attended by an elegant assemblage of Spanish gentlemen, including El Greco’s contemporaries the brothers Covarrub-ias, architects of Toledo. Above their heads the disembodied soul of the deceased is borne aloft to Christ by an angel.
The art of portraiture, which contributes so much to this and many other of El Greco’s many-figured religious works, can also be admired in an array of exquisite small paintings like those in the Prado. One of these is the moving and spiritual painting of a knight with his hand on his breast that might be called the epitome of Spanish refinement and depth of feeling. This art culminates in the frighteningly powerful full-length painting of the red-robed inquisitor, Cardinal Fernando Nino de Guevara (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York ).
El Greco’s two famous views of Toledo, one with the map and plan of the city (Casa del Greco, Toledo) and the weirdly storm-threatened view (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) could almost be called interpretive portraits of the city. In the latter picture, the artist has not hesitated to alter the topography to increase the dramatic effect. Glimpses of the landscape of Toledo and its surrounding country are often important components of many of El Greco’s religious compositions.
Between 1600 and 1605, El Greco painted a series of glorious pictures for the Hospital of Charity at Illescas, a tiny town about halfway between Toledo and Madrid. The paintings, on some of which he was assisted by Jorge Manuel, have remained at Illescas and include the finest and surely the original of the several versions of S an Ildefonso at his Writing Desk, as well as the Madonna of Charity, the oval Coronation of the Virgin, and the pair of tondi showing the Annunciation and the Nativity.
During the last six years before his death in 1614, El Greco was occupied with an important commission for the decoration of the chapel of the Hospital of St. John the Baptist (called Afuera, meaning “outside” [the city]) in Toledo. He was charged with the construction of three retables, one for the high altar and one for each of two side altars. This commission, still incomplete at Jorge Manuel’s death in 1631, is known to us by three extant pictures in El Greco’s latest, most free and expressive style. Two are clearly unfinished: the Annunciation (Urquijo Collection, Madrid) and the Vision of St. John (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which also seems to have a missing part at the top. The third painting, the large and intensely conceived Baptism of Christ, has remained at the hospital.
El Greco’s effects were achieved with an entirely individual handling of color, light, and line. The deep, rich harmonies he had learned in Venice gave way early to the lighter palette that he favored. He used glittering white, vibrant tones of rose and crimson, acrid yellow green, and small, surprising touches of brilliant orange. Each color moves through a complete scale of values, producing an effect of shimmering light that animates the entire surface of his paintings. Form is modeled with light or destroyed with shadow so that his figures have both corporeal and ghostly qualities. His curving ascending lines tend increasingly to suggest tongues of flame, and such late pictures as the Immaculate Conception (Museum of Santa Cruz, Toledo) seem to be vibrating from top to bottom in a great surging wave of fire.