English translation: The Greek
Real name: Domenikos Theotokopoulos
Born: Candia, Crete (a Greek speaking Venetian-held territory), 1541 (some sources state between 1545 and 1550)
Died: Toledo, Spain, 1614
Occupation: Visual Artist
Contribution: A Mannerist style or Proto-Modernist whose oozing pathos has appeal for all generations
This Master painter started his painting studies on his native Crete,
where he worked on icons (way before Apple and Windows) that were a
staple of Orthodox contemplation. There are supposedly two pieces of
this late Byzantine genre attributed to him with their Neo-Platonic rendering. One is the
Dormition of the Virgin which can be found in the Church of
the Koimesistis, Theotokou, Syros. This aesthetic disregarded
naturalistic portrayal, and would be an influence throughout his career,
despite his later formal training. He embraced the Mannerists, who deliberately strayed from the more 'photographic' realism of their peers, especially during the turmoil of the Reformation.
In around 1566 he moved to Venice to study under the masters. We
know he was Titian's pupil because of a letter sent by the Croatian,
Giulio Clovio, a painter of miniatures, to Cardinal Alessandro Farnesi
later in 1570. He painted a portrait that survives today of that
above-mentioned artist, Giulio Clovio who recommended him for his next
journey Rome. Under the Renaissance style he perfected perspective,
figure studies, and every picture tells a story. An example of his
work at this time is The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind.
Go to Dresden, look at it, though it has a narrative, the edifices in
the background are trying 3D (way before Dreamworks) Tintoretto
influence, and the clothing has all the folds and rich colors, Titian's
mentoring; but look again-- at the sky! All El Greco. Though he was
infused with much of their tutelage, which also included Veronese, and Jacopo Bassano he veered away from their perhaps more strict style.
In 1570 he moved to Rome, though artistically touched by the epic works of
Michelangelo, especially his eye for composition, -- who died only
about 6 years earlier-- our Theotokopoulos unthinkingly publicly
criticized his work. Cardinal Fernessi was his host and benefactor, and
gave the new budding painter a studio and staff at the Painters'
Academy. Along with the Clovio portrait, only Christ Driving the Money-changers out of the Temple
survives from his Italian period. He signs his paintings in Greek, and
sometimes with "Kres". For 6 years El Greco languished, only doing
portraits and devotional works while striving to have altar pieces --the
big money-- commissioned; but ah alas, his critique of their beloved
Michelangelo probably came back to haunt him.
Now, in 1576, El Greco turned his hope toward Madrid, Spain, where he
hoped to get patronage from King Philip II and paint frescoes inside
the recently finished royal monastery/palace, El Escorial, but when
his submitted paintings (one being The Triumph of the Holy
League) did not get the nod, he moved to Toledo, which would become his final resting place as well. Here he painted The Disrobing of Christ; When
he did not receive the correct payment, (they thought he overcharged)
he went to court. The judicial records are a source of information about
his sojourn and activity at this time. He would not tell the
proceedings when he arrived in Spain, however. Again, he some kind of
put his foot in his mouth with this tort, and he never got the big
cathedral gigs, but fortunately for him, and us, he worked for
individuals, and smaller Catholic entities, convents, hospitals and
churches. This was the reason many of his works were churchmen's portraits.
Though he was a Roman Catholic, El Greco, foremost being an artist including the stereotypical connotations, had a son, Jorge Manuel in 1578 with
his girlfriend, and a subject of one of his many portraits, Doña Jerónima de Las Cuevas. This only boy of his is actually
in the painting mentioned next:
It was in 1586, still in the Church of Santo Tomé, that he finished what many call his shining masterpiece, The Burial of the Count Orgaz, in
the same stature as that other famous 'painterly' draughtsman, Diego
Velázquez. (Later, Francisco Pacheco would visit El Greco's studio, but
teaching his protege, Velázquez to paint from live models, not wax
ones that El Greco settled with.) Demonstrated here is the famous stretching the subject almost to
distortion, and what was termed for Egyptian tombs with no blank walls, horror vacui. What imagination to have Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine witnesses there!
Not only was El Greco a painter, but he was an architect, designing
several churches. His sculptures are also a testament to his talent.
In 1597 his View of Toledo is a marvelous landscape, (there was
another like it by him, too) maybe one of the most famous of all. From
1597 through the early 1600's he painted many portraits and bible
scenes, many of which can be seen in museums all over the world. Just
before his death, his work took on even more drastic eccentricities, for
example: The Opening of the Fifth Seal. The 19th century revived an interest in him, and not just that century, but the last two. He seems almost contemporary.
These intense expressionist manifestations in his oils and frescoes, contrary
to some rumors, are not because he had vision problems or was having
mental aberrations, but because he was capturing the spirituality along
with the pictorial and narrative elements. Ironically, though popular
in his own time in Toledo, his style was actually looking back, rather
than what was forward like Caravaggio. But Francisco Goya, John Singer Sargent, Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, Amedeo Modigliani,
Emil Nolde, and I certainly thought he looked ahead.