El Greco Biography

In Brief
Born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Candia, Crete, 1541. Died in Toledo, 6 or 7 April 1614. One son, by Jeronima de las Cuevas, the painter Jorge Manuel. Established as a painter in Crete by 1566; possibly studied under Titian in Venice, 1568; member of the painters guild in Rome, 1572; then recorded in Toldeo from 1577 to 1614: worked in S. Domingo el Antiguo, 1577-79, Toledo Cathedral, the Seminary of the Incarnation (Madrid), 1596-99, and Hospital of St. John the Baptist Outside the Walls, Toledo, from 1608.
Major Collection: Madrid.
Other Collections:
Bucharest; Chicago; Escorial; Illescas:church of the Hospital de la Caridad; Lille; London; Minneapolis; Modena; Munich; New York: Hispanic Society, Metropolitan; Parma; Toledo: Cathedral, Hospital of St. John the Baptist, Museum Parroquial de S. Vicente, S. Vicente, S. Domingo el Antiguo, S. Juan Bautista, S. Nicolas, S. Tome; Toledo, Ohio; Washington: National Gallery, Phillips; Worcester, Massachusetts.

On EL GRECO: books— Cossi'o, Manuel B., El Greco, Madrid, 2 vols., 1908.
Trapier, Elisabeth du Gue, El Greco, New York, 1925.
Mayer, August L., El Greco, Munich, 1926.
Mayer, August L., El Greco, Berlin, 1931.
Goldscheider, Ludwig, El Greco, 1938, 3rd ed., 1954.
Gomez Moreno, Manuel, El entierro del Conde de Orgaz: Estudio critico, Barcelona, 1943.
Caturla, Maria L., La Veronica: Vida del tema y su transformation por El Greco, Madrid, 1944.
Lozoya, Marques de, El San Mauricio del Greco: Estudio critico, Barcelona, 1947.
Camon Aznar, Jose, Domenico Greco, Madrid, 2 vols., 1950, 1970.
Guinard, Paul, El Greco, Lausanne and New York, 1956. Maranon, Gregorio, El Greco y Toledo, Madrid, 1958, 4th ed., 1963.
Trapier, Elisabeth du Gue, El Greco: Early Years at Toledo 1576-1586, New York, 1958.
Kehrer, Hugo, Greco in Toledo: Hone und Vollendung 1577- 1614, Stuttgart, 1960.
Wethey, Harold E., El Greco and His School, Princeton, 2 vols., 1962.
Lafuente Ferrari, Enrique, El Greco: The Expressionism of His Final Years, New York, 1969.
Manzini, Gianna, L'opera completa del Greco, Milan, 1969.
Gudiol, Jose, El Greco, Barcelona, 1971, New York, 1973. Lassaigne, Jacques, El Greco, London, 1974.
Davies, David, El Greco, Oxford and New York, 1976.
Baccheschi, Edi, El Greco, Milan, 1979, as El Greco: The Complete Paintings, New York and London, 1979.
Marias, Fernando, and Agustin Bustamente Garcia, Las ideas artisticas de El Greco, Madrid, 1981.
Brown. Jonathan, et al., El Greco of Toledo (cat), Boston, 1982.
Brown, Jonathan, editor. Figures of Thought: El Greco as Interpreter of History, Tradition, and Ideas, Washington,1982.
Allen, George R., El Greco: Two Studies, Philadelphia, 1984.
El Greco: Italy and Spain (colloquium), Washington, 1984.
Mann, Richard G., El Greco and His Patrons: Three Major Projects, Cambridge, 1986.

The Art
El Greco, known today as a painter of the Spanish "Golden Age", was born in Candia, Crete, in 1541. The contents of El Greco's library at the time of his death in 1614 reveal that he was well educated, and the annotations in some of those books shed light on his inquiring and intellectual mind. Although El Greco obviously received a sound education, an early document recorded before a Cretan notary public indicates that he was from an early age "Master Domenikos Theotokopoulos, painter."

The Crete of El Greco's birth was under Venetian rule, and there was a large Greek colony in Venice. Venice was thus a logical attraction for a painter who was trained in the Byzantine icon tradition, as El Greco was, but whose earliest works, notably the Modena Triptych (Modena) demonstrate a will to westernize and thereby up-date his painting style. This triptych, signed "Master Domenikos," reveals an impulse on the part of its maker away from the flat gold background of the Byzantine icon toward the suggestion of real space that was the common goal of all western painters since the early Renaissance. As well, the figures are endowed with more naturalistic volume, and their poses and garments are treated in a much less stylized manner.

We do not know when El Greco first arrived in Venice, though he is first documented there on 18 August 1568. He probably spent no more than three and a half years in Venice, but in that time El Greco became a Venetian painter. Several years later her was mentioned in a letter by his friend Giulio Clovio as a "disciple of Titian," though there is no evidence that he actually worked in Titian's shop. What is clear is that El Greco avidly studied and learned from the works of Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Jacopo Bassano, and others who contributed to the glory of late 16th-century Venetian painting.

El Greco's Purification of the Temple (Washington) perfectly represents the radical transformation that his style underwent during his Venetian sojourn. As was the habit of many artists who needed a bit of help in organizing pictorial space, El Greco evidently based this painting on a composition invented by Michelangelo. If El Greco's handling of Renaissance pictorial space in this small painting is as yet imperfect, he has, in a painterly technique, infused the work successfully with rich color and animated movement, both derived from his study of the Venetian masters.

In 1570 El Greco arrived in Rome, where his artistic education benefitted from new lessons. There he met Giulio Clovio, the well-known miniatures painter, who recommended him to the household of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. In July 1572 "el pittore greco" is recorded at work on the decoration of the Hall of Hercules in the Farnese villa at Caprarola. On 18 September 1572 he was admitted to the Rome painters Academy as a painter of miniatures. El Greco's stay in Rome is otherwise hardly documented, except by further changes in his style. On his way to Rome, El Greco evidently stopped at Parma and was much impressed by the paintings of Correggio. In Rome itself he added to his potential repertory the High Renaissance achievements of central Italy, as exemplified in the works of Raphael and Michelangelo. The lessons learned are evident in the version of Christ Healing the Blind (Parma), painted sometime after El Greco arrived in Rome. The painter has not relinquished the luminous color of Venetian painting, but he is now fully capable of populating a dramatically receding architectural space with more monumental figures that demonstrate an enhanced command of the human form. A slightly later version of the same subject (New York) repeats the conjunction of Venetian and central Italian ideals and adds a new interest—the Mannerist style practised by such Roman painters as Francesco Salviati and Federico Zuccaro.

El Greco, now thoroughly grounded in all permutations of the Italian Renaissance style, arrived in Spain in 1577. That journey, which was to prove crucial to his career and to his reputation today, was undoubtedly prompted by several reasons: his inability to obtain important commissions in an arena zealously guarded by Italian painters, his friendship with several Spaniards in Rome who had important friends and relatives in Toledo, and the lure of the enormous project underway to decorate Philip II's monastery/church/palace at El Escorial.

El Greco may have first stopped in Madrid, but soon settled at Toledo. His son Jorge Manuel, who became his father's collaborator and closest follower, was born there in 1578. Already in July 1577 El Greco was at work on a commission much more important than any he had had in Italy. That was the large painting of The Disrobing of Christ, called El Espolio, which was destined for the sacristy of the Cathedral of Toledo. It is entirely probable that the commission came about through the intervention of a friend from Rome, Luis de Castilla, whose father, Diego de Castilla, was dean of the Toledan cathedral chapter.

El Espolio, created on a scale unprecedented in El Greco's earlier career, demonstrates the power and individuality of the synthesis derived from his experience. Fluid passages of brushwork and the brilliant carmine of Christ's robe recall Venice, the monumental figures symmetrically disposed recall the Roman High Renaissance, and the elongation of the figure of Christ and the crowding of the figures into a compressed space are Mannerist traits. The lack of a sense of "place" in this painting suggests El Greco's return to an aspect of Byzantine practise; from the completion of El Espolio to the end of his life, El Greco very rarely situated his figures within the sophisticated and elaborate architectural spaces he had created while in Italy.

From 1577 through 1579 El Greco was working on an even larger commission for the altarpieces of the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. The Assumption of the Virgin (Chicago), the center of the main altarpiece, and the Trinity (Madrid), placed above it, are two of the great masterpieces of El Greco's early years in Spain. Both are indebted to Italy, but are also markedly original in style.

El Greco's first attempt to attract the attention of Philip II was evidently the painting called The Allegory of the Holy League (Escorial), which commemorates the defeat of the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, a defeat made possible by an alliance of Spain, Venice, and the Vatican. This strange composition, with its medieval connotations in the great maw of the Leviathan rising from the sea, may indeed have been a foot in the door for El Greco at court. In 1580 Philip granted El Greco a commission for an altarpiece at the Escorial. The royal commission called for a depiction of The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice and the Theban Legions (Escorial); El Greco worked on the painting for two years, delivering it in person to the Escorial on 16 November 1582. He was paid the handsome sum of 800 ducats for his work, but Philip soon had the work replaced with a mediocre version by the Italian painter Romulo Cincinnato, dashing any hopes that El Greco might have had for future commissions from the king. El Greco had utilized a common Mannerist device, that of placing the main action (in this case, the scene of martyrdom itself) in the background. By so doing, he removed the proper subject of contemplation far from the eye of the devout viewer and thus violated the rules of Counter-Reformation art to which Philip firmly adhered.

El Greco's definitive return to Toledo was also fraught with problems, for he was involved in lengthy litigation over payment for El Espolio and was thus effectively cut off from future commissions from the cathedral chapter. He busily set up a workshop, however, which could contract for all phases of creating the typical Spanish retablo, an ensemble consisting of a gilded architectural framework, paintings, and polychromed sculpture. El Greco thus added to his repertory the work of architect and sculptor and was able independently to attract the patronage of Toledo's clergy, nobility, and intellectual aristocracy, all of whom supported his highly individual gifts (in spite of his somewhat arrogant and litigious personality) for the rest of his life.

In 1585 El Greco's workshop undertook the manufacture of the frame for El Espolio, for which he was paid as much as for the painting itself, and soon thereafter began work on the ephemeral decorations used for the triumphal procession celebrating the return of the relics of Saint Leocadia to the Cathedral of Toledo in 1587. El Greco received the commission for the most famous of his paintings, the Burial of the Count of Orgaz (Toledo, Santo Tome) in 1586 and completed the enormous work two years later. One of the finest examples of El Greco's skill as a portraitist is his portrayal of Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino, a brilliant Trinitarian friar. The portrait, today in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, was probably painted around 1609. El Greco pulls the seated figure illogically close to the picture plane and rejects any hint of ambiant space, yet these Mannerist devises serve to intensify the sensitive naturalism of his treatment of the sitter's face and expressive hands and to allow Paravicino 's intelligent gaze to engage us.

In response to the artistic demands of the Counter- Reformation, El Greco created images of saints and apostles, Christ Carrying the Cross, and Christ Crucified in a number of variations. Many of these are among his most moving works; many are less successful productions of his workshop. Among these deeply moving devotional paints is a Pieta (Stavros S. Niarchos Collection) which exemplifies the way in which El Greco's style perfectly expresses the emotional content of a subject. Joseph of Arimathea aids the Virgin Mary in supporting the body of her son; they are accompanied by Mary Magdalen. The figures are arranged horizontally in a severely narrow space, as if to press the livid, elongated form of the dead Christ toward the viewer (in a manner much like that of Roger van der Weyden's Deposition (Madrid). Grief is expressed through a stunned and frozen silence.

From the year 1596, when El Greco signed a contract for an altarpiece for the College of Dona Maria de Aragon, his shop continued to attract major commissions. In 1597 and 1607 El Greco contracted for decorating private chapels, and in 1603 and 1608 he signed agreements to provide a new altarpiece for two hospitals. The painter died in 1614 in the city that had adopted him and his art. Domenikos Theotokopoulis, as he always signed his paintings, is unique in the history of art. He is the only painter of Greek origins to have moved so fully out of the Byzantine tradition and so ably into the pictorial world of the Italian Renaissance. His extremely Mannerist style, continuously exaggerated in terms of the elongation of forms and brio of technique as he aged, attracted the patronage of the learned clerics and intellectuals of Toledo. For centuries, his work was not well known outside that city, certainly not outside Spain. At the turn of this century, El Greco's daring, highly personal style was re-evaluated in light of the equally daring break with pictorial traditions forged by such artists as Picasso. His works are today widely considered as among the masterpieces of European painting.