El Greco (1541-1614)

 

'View of Toledo', 1597 (oil on canvas)

EL GRECO - Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614)
'View of Toledo', 1597 (oil on canvas)

Known as El Greco (the Greek) because he was born in Crete, Doménikos Theotokópoulos was one of the great masters of Spanish painting. He was proud of his national heritage, so much so that he signed his work using characters from the Greek alphabet. During his formative artistic years in Venice and Rome, he was influenced by Tintoretto and Michelangelo respectively. In 1577 he moved to Spain where he finally settled in Toledo until his death in 1614.

El Greco has a style which is quite unique in European painting: a strange combination of the expressive power of Italian Mannerism but illuminated by a mystical light and colour that reflects the artist's intense spiritual fervour.

Toledo was the religious capital of Spain and El Greco's 'View of Toledo' is a landscape painting with a spiritual dimension. He chooses to portray the scene just at that moment before a storm bursts. The heavens are at war, with the sun just holding out against the impending thunderstorm and the atmosphere is electric. The spire of Toledo Cathedral seems to conduct this energy to the surrounding buildings while the landscape bristles with static charge. At this portentous moment the voice of God speaks through the forces of nature. It is an apocalyptic scene which recalls St. John's vision of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelations, 'He showed me Jerusalem, the Holy City, coming out of Heaven from God and shining with the glory of God. The city shone like a precious stone, like a jasper, clear as crystal.'

This is a landscape of unearthly power and drama: a dialogue between heaven and earth conducted appropriately by the cathedral spire. In fact, El Greco has changed the actual positions of the cathedral and the Alcázar palace to increase the effectiveness of his composition.

 

An Apocalyptic Vision

 

'Opening the Fifth Seal', 1608-1614 (oil on canvas)

EL GRECO - Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614)
'Opening the Fifth Seal', 1608-1614 (oil on canvas)

El Greco's fame faded after his death until he was 'rediscovered' at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century. Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso and the German Expressionists were attracted by the expressive distortions of form and colour and the apocalyptic visions he portrayed in his paintings.

 

Rediscovered by Modern Artists

 

'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon', 1907 (oil on canvas)

PABLO PICASSO (1881 - 1973)
'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon', 1907 (oil on canvas)

Picasso acknowledges his debt to El Greco in the first major cubist painting, 'Les Demoiselles d'Avignon', a revolutionary work that has many compositional similarities to El Greco's 'Opening of the Fifth Seal' (1608-1614). This late masterpiece was owned by Picasso's friend, Ignacio Zuloaga, and at the time when Picasso was painting 'Les Demoiselles' he often visited Zuloaga to view the work.

Franz Marc, one of the most renowned expressionists, said, 'the glory of this painter is closely tied to the evolution of our new perceptions on art.' El Greco was not simply an old master; he was an artist from the past whose ideas were three hundred years ahead of their time.

El Greco Notes

 

'Portrait of a Man' - possible self portrait, c.1600 (oil on canvas)

EL GRECO - Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614)
'Portrait of a Man' c.1600 - possible self portrait (oil on canvas).

 

  • El Greco is Spanish for 'the Greek'. His real name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos.
  • El Greco was born in Crete and trained as an icon painter.
  • El Greco moved to Italy and lived in Rome, where he was influenced by Michelangelo.
  • He then moved to Venice, where he was influenced by the mannerist style of Tintoretto.
  • El Greco finally settled in Toledo which was the religious capital of Spain at the time.
  • El Greco's mature style of painting is a mixture of different elements from his past : the Byzantine tradition (from Crete), the High Renaissance and Mannerism (from Rome and Venice) combined with a religious mysticism (from Toledo).
  • El Greco freely distorted his figures and exaggerated the colour and tone of his paintings to achieve the unique mystical vision for his art.
  • Although El Greco's fame faded after his death, the Cubists and the Expressionists 'rediscovered' his art in the 20th century.

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'The Agony in the Garden' (1595) by El Greco.

'The Agony in the Garden' (1595) by El Greco.