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' draughtsmanDiego 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 ModiglianiEmil Nolde, and I certainly thought he looked ahead.




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