Greek by birth, Spanish by choice, El Greco transcended place and time with his expressionistic flights of the spirit.
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El Greco found his groove in Toledo. When he arrived there in 1577, the Spanish city was in decline. It was no longer a political center, with King Philip II having moved the court to Madrid 16 years earlier. It seemed an unlikely city to enhance one’s career. Yet among the well educated, upper-class holdouts of the former Spanish capital, El Greco found the ideal place to explore his eccentricities and indulge his arrogance, after failing to do so in other places—his native Crete, its overlord Venice, and Rome, the cultural center of the Catholic world at that time. The work El Greco created in Toledo cemented his place as the first, chronically speaking, of Spain’s trinity of great artists, along with Velázquez and Goya. An outsider certainly by birth, but also in style, the painter, centuries after his lifetime, is thought to have captured the spirit of Spain more than any other artist, Spanish or otherwise.
Now, at the 400th anniversary of his death, New York is a major hub for El Greco. The Metropolitan Museum’s collection of El Greco paintings is the finest in the world outside of the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Its exhibition “El Greco in New York” (November 4–February 1) comprises its own nine examples plus six loans from the Hispanic Society of America. The Frick Collection, in its own galleries, which are within walking distance of the Met, recently had its three El Greco pictures up on view simultaneously for the first time (the works cannot be lent due to the stipulations of the bequest of works acquired during Henry Clay Frick’s lifetime). Between the two locations, work spanning El Greco’s entire career will be on view, giving museumgoers the opportunity to explore the artist’s development through cities.
Why El Greco moved to Toledo is still something of a mystery. Some have posited that the sojourn stemmed from the fallout of a foot-in-mouth remark about Michelangelo—when it was proposed that the vulgarities of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel might be cleaned up with a few well-placed loincloths, El Greco purportedly suggested that he could do the whole thing anew with a higher taste level and equal excellence. Though the man had died in 1564—six years before El Greco’s arrival to Rome—the name Michelangelo was not to be bandied about. Another of the juicier explanations for El Greco’s decision to stay in Toledo is that the painter took a mistress, Jerónima de las Cuevas, early on upon his arrival there—an unorthodox domestic situation in nearly-puritanical 16th-century Spain, but nevertheless one that El Greco became attached to. He even later adopted her son Jorge Manuel, who was also an artist, though far less talented. It is recorded that Jorge Manuel worked in El Greco’s workshop along with other apprentices, reproducing the master’s paintings to clients’ desired dimensions and variations (much to the chagrin of art historians), and it is also documented that he was given power of attorney upon the artist’s death.
Surely El Greco’s removal to Spain had something to do with his paltry success in Rome. He moved there in 1570 with a letter of recommendation from the Croatian miniaturist Giulio Clovio. He took up residence in the palace of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the most prominent patron in Rome, and joined the painter’s academy in 1572, setting up shop with at least one assistant on hand at all times. Though his portraits and small-scale devotional paintings were well regarded, the artist was not once during his six-year stay in the Eternal City commissioned to paint an altarpiece. His stay was most likely also spoiled by a mysterious falling out with Farnese. When the artist learned that Philip II was building a palace, he decamped to Madrid in 1576, looking for royal patronage. He was once again disappointed. Philip II was interested in a conservative style, and El Greco’s work, influenced by his stay in Rome, was too
Manneristic. Despite the artist’s comments regarding Michelangelo, Walter Liedtke, curator of European paintings at the Met, notes, “He absorbed lessons from the late Mannerists in Rome—Giorgio Vasari, and certainly Michelangelo. The Last Judgement, the picture of all kinds of tortured souls and angels, with Christ damning or saving everyone, was the most important painting for El Greco in the city.” The muscular, heroic figures of Michelangelo became the strong contorted figures of works like The Disrobing of Christ (1577–79), The Holy Trinity (1577–79), and The Vision of Saint John (1608–14).
El Greco was born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Crete in 1541. He was trained as an icon painter in the Byzantine style that was still in vogue at the time. A few known examples of his work in Greece exist, which foreshadow the non-naturalist style and elongation of the human figure that would later hallmark his genius. Throughout his career he would sign his name in Greek letters, the way that the Greek icon painters had signed theirs. Signatures were generally uncommon on European paintings at the time, but this self-aggrandizing habit would become an exotic flourish in the eyes of his Spanish patrons, and led in part to his moniker El Greco.
He moved to Venice (Crete had been a Venetian territory for three centuries) in 1567 and became a disciple of Titian. But it was the nervous energy and tempestuousness of Tintoretto’s work that appealed to El Greco most. What he took from Venice can be best summed up in The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind (circa 1570), a painting that was given to the Met by Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman in 1978 and will be part of the upcoming exhibition as the only example from the artist’s Roman period. The subject—popular in the Counter-Reformation and thought to symbolize the revelation of true faith—is depicted by El Greco with a truly Venetian palette of Veronese saturated blue, strawberry pink, and lemony yellow. His staging of multiple groups and his sense of compositional depth and architectural detail are characteristically Venetian, and certainly he brought these qualities with him to Rome and then Spain.
Not successful in Rome, yet too Roman for the Spanish court, El Greco had to look somewhere else to find his niche. In Toledo, Diego de Castilla, dean of Toledo Cathedral, commissioned El Greco to paint complex altarpieces for the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo and to create frames for the paintings. The commission was a great honor. “He had a desire to capture the heartstrings of the people and elicit an emotional response to the altarpieces in the church,” says Liedtke. “These were the Counter-Reformation’s Catholic approach to advertising.” De Castilla was also helped secure El Greco’s commission to paint Espolio (The Disrobing of Christ) for the cathedral’s vestiary. The commission led to litigation over compensation—a common occurrence for El Greco, who demanded high prices for his work—and he never received such a significant work order from the cathedral authorities again. However, the work remained perhaps his most ambitious, a culmination of what he realized in Italy combined with an enigmatic quality all his own—his expressionistic, intensely mystical spirituality.
In 1586, the priest of the parish of Santo Tomé in Toledo commissioned El Greco to paint a miracle that purportedly took place in 1312 at its benefactor’s funeral. The painting, The Burial of Count Orgaz, shows Saints Stephen and Augustine aiding in the count’s burial, while his soul is welcomed into heaven. The painting, now considered El Greco’s masterpiece, is a juxtaposition of oppositional worlds, punctured by intermediaries—the earthly and the divine are separated but transcended by the two saints, and the scene of the painting and the reality of the viewer are mediated by El Greco’s son Jorge, who sits in the left corner of the painting gazing out from the picture. It creates a visionary experience and serves almost as an allegory for El Greco’s work itself—it is not grounded in natural law, nor faithful to worldly harmony, but a flight of the spirit. It is the truth they preach in church, the dialogue with the soul, and the portraits painted in heaven.
El Greco’s early form of Expressionism was not properly understood in his own century, nor in the two that followed. By the time of his death his style was almost forgotten, supplanted by Velázquez’ realism in Spain and by Caravaggio’s new Baroque style in Italy. It was difficult to sell the remaining paintings from
his studio. Yet in the 19th century, El Greco reemerged. The French writer Théophile Gautier dubbed him the ideal romantic hero, while other French art critics and artists claimed him as master and muse. Delacroix, Manet, and Degas saw him as an anachronistic genius and adapted elements of his work into their own. Spanish art historian Manuel Bartolomé Cossío created the first comprehensive publication on the artist in 1908. “You can see why he appealed so strongly to modern painters—he seems like this genius who comes out of nowhere, but he’s a real person coming from a real place. Yet there’s no way you can say his paintings in Spain were like any other paintings in Spain at the time,” says Liedtke, “He’s admired for the force of his emotion, his passion, and his reputation as a sort of wild eccentric. In his pictures humanity runs wild, and the heart takes over the head.”
The Spanish painter Ignacio Zuloaga bought The Vision of Saint John (referred to also as The Opening of the Fifth Seal, 1608–14), which will be displayed at the Met, in 1905 for 1,000 pesetas and immediately put it in his studio. Picasso, who was working on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon at the time, came and studied the painting. The compositional similarities in the two masterpieces draw a line directly from El Greco to Cubism. “Picasso says ‘I am Cubism and El Greco is the inspiration. Cubism is Spanish in origin and El Greco is the footnote for that,’” says Liedtke.
Collectors took note of the mysterious Spanish master who was influencing contemporary artists. “El Greco in New York” is in many ways an examination of how El Greco is an artist of the turn of the 20th century—the time when he was rediscovered by artists and scholars and a new market for his work was created. Many of the pieces in the show were bought and bequeathed in the first few decades of the 20th century, prior to any major initiative by the Met to acquire Latin American art (this wouldn’t happen until after World War II). Henry and Louisine Havemeyer gave two El Grecos to the Met in 1929. They had acquired A View From Toledo (circa 1597) in 1907, and Louisine, after Henry’s death, bought Portrait of a Cardinal (Probably Cardinal Don Fernando Niño de Guevara (circa 1600–04) on her own in 1909. Louisine, who was childhood friends with Mary Cassatt and a driving force in bringing Impressionism to America, went to Toledo in 1907 and responded strongly to El Greco’s work. Henry Clay Frick bought El Greco’s Portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi—one of only two full-length portraits he painted—in 1913, while building his Fifth Avenue mansion. Prior to the martial portrait, Frick acquired the pink-cloaked, long-bearded St. Jerome (1590–1600)—of which the Met also has a version in the Robert Lehman collection—in 1905 and Purification of the Temple (circa 1600) in 1909. The efforts of Archer Huntington as a collector of El Greco, and of Spanish painting in general, cannot be overlooked. Huntington, who became enamored with Spain while reading George Borrow’s 1841 book on Spanish gypsies when he was 12, founded the Hispanic Society of America in 1904, which now boasts six El Grecos.
While living in Toledo, El Greco enjoyed a pleasurable life. He was a figure of considerable fascination to the intellectuals in the city, and his eccentricities—and even his provincial, arrogant, and at times brutish ways—were often read as exotic. His workshop was busy, and he prospered well enough to keep musicians in his employ to play while he ate. It is not known whether he converted to Catholicism while staying with Farnese, but it is clear that he was a man of some spiritual piety, but also intellectual curiosity. It was reported by the artist and biographer Francisco Pacheco, after he visited El Greco late in his life, that the artist had been writing essays on art and philosophy. Those are lost, but his heavily annotated copies of Vitruvius’ writing and Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists are still extant. It would have been interesting to read El Greco describing his choices in his own words—his rejection of the classical harmony of High Renaissance realism and his attempts to create new harmonies of his own; his distortions of form and color; his idiosyncratic bursts of emotion; his contorted, earth-grounded, heaven-leaning figures; his ability to seem erudite and democratically spiritual at the same time; and perhaps even, why Toledo?