El Greco: the man, the myth, “the Greek”
Updated: May 15, 2020
So, you may be thinking ... that name sounds familiar, but who is this guy again, why am I choosing to write about him and why now? Good questions! I’ll recap who he is in a moment, but I chose to blog about him because I think El Greco is an extremely fascinating artist and I’ll share with you why I am so enamored by his art. But it is timely to share this now because there is currently a large and exceptional exhibit featuring many of his works on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, which may be viewed until June 21, 2020 ... of course, once the pandemic restrictions are lifted and the museum re-opens. So if you are anywhere in striking distance of Chicago or have plans to go there before the end of June, then this may interest you! Opportunities like this don't come around often.
El Greco was a genuine transformer!
El Greco was a Greek, born Domenikos Theotokopoulos, in 1541 on the island of Crete. Growing up in Greece, he was trained in the Cretan style of Byzantine icon painting. This was a style that depicted religious figures and devotional scenes in very static poses using gold paint, primarily, on wooden panels. Icons, painted of saints and Holy figures, served as intercessors and appeared quite static, reserved and unnatural. Upon finishing his formative apprenticeship, El Greco stayed busy decorating church walls and altarpieces in Orthodox churches throughout the island. By his mid 20’s, however, he felt he had outgrown what Crete could offer him and decided to pursue his artistic ambitions in Venice. He thought big and wanted more! So, he moved to Venice in 1567 at age 26. Venice is where his transformation began!
In Crete, painted reserved Byzantine icons
In Venice, the Italian Renaissance was already in full swing. He spent only 3 years there, but those years were vital to his growth and metamorphosis. He carefully studied and fully embraced the style of the great Venetian artists of that time, notably Titian and Tintoretto. There, he learned to use color and paint boldly!
In Venice, learns bold color usage
After three years, in 1570, he decided to go to Rome, a city at the epicenter of the Renaissance and the powerhouse of the Catholic Church where wealthy commissions became El Greco’s pursuit. By the time El Greco arrived in Rome, Michelangelo had already passed about 6 years prior, but his reputation and status remained strong and his artistic style remained one to be emulated. Michelangelo’s works clearly had an effect on El Greco, as he began painting his figures with more musculature and anatomic detail. Studying the works of not only Michelangelo, but also Leonardo DaVinci, he began painting his figures in more complex poses. El Greco, however, put his unique twist on the traditional Italian Renaissance perspective. His style added depth to the scene by densely overlapping his figures and minimizing the space between them. But competition for patron commisions in Rome was tight and El Greco, despite his unique talents, was unable to secure commercial success. He therefore decided to move, yet again, and take his skills to Spain.
In Rome, learns complex and dynamic posing
By now he was 36 yo and he decided to settle in Toledo, Spain. This was an impressive intellectual center at the time and the home of, potentially, two great patrons ... the Roman Catholic Cathedral and King Phillip II; who at the time was likely the wealthiest and most powerful ruler of Europe and in the process of a major urban revitalization program. Despite having obtained commissions from both, El Greco quickly burned both those bridges, having offended them by engaging in multiple legal battles with each over payments for his work. He thereby excluded himself from further large-scale commissions and resolved himself to paint smaller works such as portraits for the elite intelligentsia, consisting of lawyers, writers, artists; and commissions of altarpieces for small churches and private family chapels. In this role, however, he was enormously successfully and completely re-branded himself. He was successful enough to open his own workshop in which multiple apprentices and artisans worked, mimicking his style.
In Spain, creates his brand!
So what really was his style? His individual style superimposes his very vivid imagination onto Italian Renaissance concepts involving bold color and naturalistic movement thereby creating images or scenes that are overtly expressive. His paintings incorporate elongated figures, emotive facial expressions, dynamic gestures, intense colors in dense compact scenes. He created a genuine surplus of emotion and expression, and embodied a style that modern artists were interested in. So in many ways he could be considered a forerunner to Modernism.
After his death in 1614, his workshop unfortunately closed and his style was not continued or emulated. He was considered a quirky figure.
His reputation sinks into obscurity after death
It wasn’t until the late 19th to early 20th c. that he essentially became “re-discovered“. Avant-garde artists of that time, like Picasso, became very interested in his work, as they felt that El Greco’s paintings embodied an expressionist and modern style that they really valued and appreciated. Picasso actually studied and was inspired by El Greco’s works, as is reflected in Picasso’s own painting of ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’
El Greco’s mystical style was re-born in Modern era
El Greco, a transformer with a fervent imagination and passionate intensity, had one of the most idiosyncratic styles in Western Art. Born in Greece, trained in Italy, made his name in Spain. He likely knew who he was as an artist, but struggled in his career as he had to negotiate a very challenging payment system and learn to navigate a patronage world.
I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to view two of his works at the recent ‘Treasures of the Spanish World‘ exhibit at Cincinnati Art Museum. The Metropolitan Museum of Art also has a few of his paintings in their permanent collection. But it is rare to have the opportunity to view an extensive collection of his art at one time, as is currently exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago. I look forward to the re-opening of the museum and hope to get up to Chicago before June 21st.