Editor's Choice

El Greco Exhibit at National Gallery of Art

400thAnniversary Celebration
El Greco 1541---1614

West Wing
November 2 ---February 16, 2016

By Patricia Keegan

When I first saw a collection of El Greco’s paintings at the El Prado museum in Madrid, I admit, I was overwhelmed by the size of the paintings, I kept walking backwards to try to absorb the full meaning; the vivid colors, the elongations of figures soaring from floor to high ceiling. Paintings filled with heavenly images of angels, saints, and biblical scenes, and gory scenes, and softly colored, deeply touching images of Christ. My experience was like a peek into heaven from an artist who obviously had an enviable view of heaven, and a deep, spiritual connection. A Greek artist with an emotional style, El Greco, expressed the passion of the Counter Reformation. In this 400th National Gallery has gathered together the most important El Greco collection outside Spain.

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) Christ Cleansing the Temple Samuel H. Kress Collection

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos)
Christ Cleansing the Temple
Samuel H. Kress Collection

El Greco (The Greek) Dominikos Theotokopoulos, was born in Candia, Crete in 1541, where he began painting at an early age, and soon became skilled in the art of Byzantine icons. In his early twenties he, like many Greek artists, decided to leave for Venice. Here he had the good fortune to study under Titian, the greatest artist of his time. In the shadow of St Mark’s Basilica, with its golden mosaics, which emulate the vaults of early Byzantine churches, he mastered the fundamental aspects of Renaissance painting and began to combine this with his Byzantine past. From Titian he learned how to translate the dynamic, rich reflecting colors of mosaics into deeply textured oil paintings. Recent research suggests that El Greco’s early training equipped him to work in both traditional eastern and more modern western modes.

El Greco’s next stop was Rome where he was received as a guest of the Palazzo Farnese which Cardinal Alessandro Farnese had made a center of intellectual and artistic life in the city. El Greco soon established his own studio where his paintings began to show all the influences exuding from the glories of Byzantium, the brilliant colors of Venetian art and the elegant artificialities of Roman mannerisms. He lived in Rome from 1570-1576 but success was elusive. History tells us that he was “hounded” out, because be criticized Michelangelo’s painting “The Last Judgment”. 

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata, 1585-1590 The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, 37.424

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos)
Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata, 1585-1590
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, 37.424

Leaving Rome he went to Toledo, capital of Spain for centuries, which seemed to be more in harmony with his disposition. Settling among the lovely hills and castles he found new inspiration. Here he created an outpouring of works from haunting portraits to much of what we see today; paintings on large canvases of elongated figures depicted in a visionary and personal style.

Although his work was controversial among his contemporaries: artists, poets and writers of a later period were able to relate to his work, including those with similar sensibilities; Rainer Maria Rilke and Nikos Kazantzakis, and later Picasso, who saw El Greco as a prophet of modernism. El Greco lived in Toledo until his death in 1614.

Cover Image
El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos)
Madonna and Child with Saint Martina and Saint Agnes, 1597/1599
Widener Collection