El Greco born Doménikos Theotokópoulos, (1541 – 7 April 1614) was a painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance. “El Greco” (The Greek) was a nickname, a reference to his ethnic Greek origin, and the artist normally signed his paintings with his full birth name in Greek letters, Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος (Doménikos Theotokópoulos), often adding the word Κρής (Krēs, “Cretan”).

Movements: Mannerism, Baroque, Pietism, Sectarianism, Emotionalism, Gesturalism

El Greco was born on Crete, which was at that time part of the Republic of Venice, and the centre of Post-Byzantine art. He trained and became a master within that tradition before travelling at age 26 to Venice, as other Greek artists had done.

El Greco - The Opening of the Fifth Seal (The Vision of St John)

El Greco – The Opening of the Fifth Seal (The Vision of St John)

In 1570 he moved to Rome, where he opened a workshop and executed a series of works. During his stay in Italy, El Greco enriched his style with elements of Mannerism and of the Venetian Renaissance. In 1577, he moved to Toledo, Spain, where he lived and worked until his death. In Toledo, El Greco received several major commissions and produced his best-known paintings.

El Greco’s dramatic and expressionistic style was met with puzzlement by his contemporaries but found appreciation in the 20th century.

El Greco is regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism, while his personality and works were a source of inspiration for poets and writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Nikos Kazantzakis.

El Greco has been characterized by modern scholars as an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school. He is best known for tortuously elongated figures and often fantastic or phantasmagorical pigmentation, marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting.

The primacy of imagination and intuition over the subjective character of creation was a fundamental principle of El Greco’s style. El Greco discarded classicist criteria such as measure and proportion.

He believed that grace is the supreme quest of art, but the painter achieves grace only if he manages to solve the most complex problems with obvious ease.

I hold the imitation of color to be the greatest difficulty of art.

— El Greco, from notes of the painter in one of his commentaries.

El Greco regarded color as the most important and the most ungovernable element of painting, and declared that color had primacy over form.

Francisco Pacheco, a painter and theoretician who visited El Greco in 1611, wrote that the painter liked “the colors crude and unmixed in great blots as a boastful display of his dexterity” and that “he believed in constant repainting and retouching in order to make the broad masses tell flat as in nature”.

El Greco - A Boy Blowing on an Ember to Light a Candle

El Greco – A Boy Blowing on an Ember to Light a Candle

Art historian Max Dvořák was the first scholar to connect El Greco’s art with Mannerism and Antinaturalism.Modern scholars characterize El Greco’s theory as “typically Mannerist” and pinpoint its sources in the Neoplatonism of the Renaissance.

Jonathan Brown believes that El Greco endeavored to create a sophisticated form of art; according to Nicholas Penny “once in Spain, El Greco was able to create a style of his own—one that disavowed most of the descriptive ambitions of painting”.

In his mature works El Greco demonstrated a characteristic tendency to dramatize rather than to describe.  The strong spiritual emotion transfers from painting directly to the audience. According to Pacheco, El Greco’s perturbed, violent and at times seemingly careless-in-execution art was due to a studied effort to acquire a freedom of style. El Greco’s preference for exceptionally tall and slender figures and elongated compositions, which served both his expressive purposes and aesthetic principles, led him to disregard the laws of nature and elongate his compositions to ever greater extents, particularly when they were destined for altarpieces. The anatomy of the human body becomes even more otherworldly in El Greco’s mature works; for The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception El Greco asked to lengthen the altarpiece itself by another 1.5 feet (0.46 m) “because in this way the form will be perfect and not reduced, which is the worst thing that can happen to a figure'”. A significant innovation of El Greco’s mature works is the interweaving between form and space; a reciprocal relationship is developed between the two which completely unifies the painting surface. This interweaving would re-emerge three centuries later in the works of Cézanne and Picasso.

Another characteristic of El Greco’s mature style is the use of light. As Jonathan Brown notes, “each figure seems to carry its own light within or reflects the light that emanates from an unseen source”. Fernando Marias and Agustín Bustamante García, the scholars who transcribed El Greco’s handwritten notes, connect the power that the painter gives to light with the ideas underlying Christian Neo-Platonism.

Modern scholarly research emphasizes the importance of Toledo for the complete development of El Greco’s mature style and stresses the painter’s ability to adjust his style in accordance with his surroundings.

El Greco - A Lady in a Fur Wrap

El Greco – A Lady in a Fur Wrap

Harold Wethey asserts that “although Greek by descent and Italian by artistic preparation, the artist became so immersed in the religious environment of Spain that he became the most vital visual representative of Spanish mysticism”. He believes that in El Greco’s mature works “the devotional intensity of mood reflects the religious spirit of Roman Catholic Spain in the period of the Counter-Reformation”.

El Greco also excelled as a portraitist, able not only to record a sitter’s features but also to convey their character. His portraits are fewer in number than his religious paintings, but are of equally high quality. Wethey says that “by such simple means, the artist created a memorable characterization that places him in the highest rank as a portraitist, along with Titian and Rembrandt“.

Let’s now enjoy some of his most celebrated works

El Greco - The Last Supper

El Greco – The Last Supper

El Greco - The Holy Family

El Greco – The Holy Family

El Greco - The Holy Family with St Mary Magdalen

El Greco – The Holy Family with St Mary Magdalen

El Greco - The Adoration of the Shepherds

El Greco – The Adoration of the Shepherds

El Greco - St Peter in Penitence

El Greco – St Peter in Penitence

El Greco - St Jerome as a Scholar

El Greco – St Jerome as a Scholar

El Greco - Mount Sinai

El Greco – Mount Sinai

El Greco - Christ Healing the Blind

El Greco – Christ Healing the Blind

El Greco - Christ Carrying the Cross

El Greco – Christ Carrying the Cross

El Greco - Annunciation

El Greco – Annunciation

El Greco - An Allegory with a Boy Lighting a Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool

El Greco – An Allegory with a Boy Lighting a Candle in the Company of an Ape and a Fool

El Greco - Allegory of the Camaldolese Order

El Greco – Allegory of the Camaldolese Order

Influence on other artists

The Opening of the Fifth Seal (1608–1614, oil, 225 × 193 cm., New York, Metropolitan Museum) has been suggested to be the prime source of inspiration for Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907, oil on canvas, 243.9 × 233.7 cm., New York, Museum of Modern Art) appears to have certain morphological and stylistic similarities with The Opening of the Fifth Seal.

El Greco’s re-evaluation was not limited to scholars. According to Efi Foundoulaki, “painters and theoreticians from the beginning of the 20th century ‘discovered’ a new El Greco but in process they also discovered and revealed their own selves”. His expressiveness and colors influenced Eugène Delacroix and Édouard Manet.

To the Blaue Reiter group in Munich in 1912, El Greco typified that mystical inner construction that it was the task of their generation to rediscover. The first painter who appears to have noticed the structural code in the morphology of the mature El Greco was Paul Cézanne, one of the forerunners of cubism. Comparative morphological analyses of the two painters revealed their common elements, such as the distortion of the human body, the reddish and (in appearance only) unworked backgrounds and the similarities in the rendering of space.  According to Brown, “Cézanne and El Greco are spiritual brothers despite the centuries which separate them”.

Fry observed that Cézanne drew from “his great discovery of the permeation of every part of the design with a uniform and continuous plastic theme”.

The Symbolists, and Pablo Picasso during his Blue Period, drew on the cold tonality of El Greco, utilizing the anatomy of his ascetic figures. While Picasso was working on Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, he visited his friend Ignacio Zuloaga in his studio in Paris and studied El Greco’s Opening of the Fifth Seal (owned by Zuloaga since 1897).

The relation between Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and the Opening of the Fifth Seal was pinpointed in the early 1980s, when the stylistic similarities and the relationship between the motifs of both works were analysed.

In any case, only the execution counts. From this point of view, it is correct to say that Cubism has a Spanish origin and that I invented Cubism. We must look for the Spanish influence in Cézanne. Things themselves necessitate it, the influence of El Greco, a Venetian painter, on him. But his structure is Cubist.

— Picasso, speaking of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon to Dor de la Souchère in Antibes.

The early cubist explorations of Picasso were to uncover other aspects in the work of El Greco: structural analysis of his compositions, multi-faced refraction of form, interweaving of form and space, and special effects of highlights. Several traits of cubism, such as distortions and the materialistic rendering of time, have their analogies in El Greco’s work. According to Picasso, El Greco’s structure is cubist.

On 22 February 1950, Picasso began his series of “paraphrases” of other painters’ works with The Portrait of a Painter after El Greco. Foundoulaki asserts that Picasso “completed … the process for the activation of the painterly values of El Greco which had been started by Manet and carried on by Cézanne“.

The expressionists focused on the expressive distortions of El Greco. According to Franz Marc, one of the principal painters of the German expressionist movement, “we refer with pleasure and with steadfastness to the case of El Greco, because the glory of this painter is closely tied to the evolution of our new perceptions on art”. Jackson Pollock, a major force in the abstract expressionist movement, was also influenced by El Greco. By 1943, Pollock had completed sixty drawing compositions after El Greco and owned three books on the Cretan master.

Contemporary painters are also inspired by El Greco’s art. Kysa Johnson used El Greco’s paintings of the Immaculate Conception as the compositional framework for some of her works, and the master’s anatomical distortions are somewhat reflected in Fritz Chesnut’s portraits.

El Greco’s personality and work were a source of inspiration for poet Rainer Maria Rilke. One set of Rilke’s poems (Himmelfahrt Mariae I.II., 1913) was based directly on El Greco’s Immaculate Conception. Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, who felt a great spiritual affinity for El Greco, called his autobiography Report to Greco and wrote a tribute to the Cretan-born artist.

In 1998, the Greek electronic composer and artist Vangelis published El Greco, a symphonic album inspired by the artist. This album is an expansion of an earlier album by Vangelis, Foros Timis Ston Greco (A Tribute to El Greco, Φόρος Τιμής Στον Γκρέκο). The life of the Cretan-born artist is the subject of the film El Greco of Greek, Spanish and British production. Directed by Ioannis Smaragdis, the film began shooting in October 2006 on the island of Crete and debuted on the screen one year later; British actor Nick Ashdon has been cast to play El Greco.

Hope you enjoyed the article as much as i did compiling the info and the images! See you next time!

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