El Greco was a Greek painter, sculptor and architect, active in Italy and Spain. One of the most original and interesting painters of 16th-century Europe, he was renowned in his lifetime for his originality and extravagance. Being brought up as an artist of Byzantine tradition El Greco, on arriving to Italy and later to Spain, fused the Byzantine influences with styles of Western world, like mannerism and Venetian Renaissance. Slide 1 Title Page Born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Candia, Crete, El Greco may be regarded as one of Spain’s foremost painters.
He reached artistic maturity in Toledo, and his career and style are bound to the patronage and spiritual environment he found in the Spanish city. He usually signed his paintings in Greek Letters with his full name, Domenicos Theotokopoulos, underscoring his Greek descent. Slide 2 • El Greco appears to have belonged to a Catholic Greek family of officials who worked for the Venetian colonial service; El Greco was formed in the tradition of Byzantine art current in Crete, where he was a master painter in 1566. His presence in Crete is documented until December 1566.
• By 1568 he is recorded in Venice, where he underwent a second artistic education that transformed him into a painter of the Venetian School. The pictures of this period, small tempera paintings, show his progressive assimilation of contemporary Venetian painting. He remained in Venice until late 1570, perhaps studying and working in Titian’s studio or perhaps only visiting it. • In 1570 El Greco went to Rome, and the few paintings done there incorporate artistic models from central Italian 16th-century painting. By the end of the 1572 he had opened a workshop.
Information on this period is limited, but there is evidence of enmity between El Greco and Giorgio Vasari, and of his criticizing Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, which probably caused his later departure for Spain. On the other hand, his stay in Rome aroused his interest in humanist and philosophical questions. It was in this context that El Greco formed his artistic creed as a colorist in the Venetian tradition. El Greco considered the color and light of the Venetians as the only possible means of imitating nature, thereby reinforcing the beauty of reality through art.
Dissatisfied with his career in Rome, El Greco went to Spain in 1576. • He is first documented in Toledo in 1577, at work on the Disrobing of Christ. The project that had taken him to Toledo was a commission for three altarpieces for Santo Domingo el Antiguo (1577–9). Having completed one commission for Philip II, the Glory of Philip II he was to embark on a second, the Martyrdom of St Maurice (1580–83), the work did not please Philip, however, and it was removed (though it remained in the King’s collection).
At this point, in his forties, the artist decided to settle in Toledo and dedicate himself to a largely local clientele. In the 1580s he tended to give his paintings more clearly sculptural characteristics, closer to Spanish taste, using the portrayal of the mundane to create greater immediacy, and exaggerating features in the representation of divine and supernatural elements. • While El Greco’s basic activity was as painting, he also designed sculptures and architectural decorations. Of greater importance, though not directly influential, was El Greco’s work as a designer of retables in an Italianate style.
He introduced a type of retable in contrast to Spanish examples, based on models combining Palladian ideas with motifs derived from Michelangelo, in which the painted canvas is the focus of the composition, and the framework is only a complementary subordinate. Slide 3 The first work with which El Greco is documented in Toledo is Disrobing of Christ, a large canvas for the sacristy of Toledo cathedral. Its rich color and daring brushwork are Venetian in origin, but the composition’s density, spatial compression, and vertical axis reflect the concerns of central Italian Mannerist art. Slide 4
Toledo period was the most fruitful for El Greco. There he developed his specific style and made his greatest contribution to Spanish art. Some of the most distinctive features of his style—lack of space between figures, purplish red and acid olive-green draperies that obscure the underlying bodies—can already be seen in the central pictures for the high altar, the Assumption of the Virgin (Chicago, Art Institute). Slide 5 and 6 El Greco’s most famous work is the Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586–8) in the church of Santo Tome in Toledo, painted in memory of a 14th-century benefactor of Santo Tome.
It depicts the lowering of the Count’s body into his tomb by Santo Augustine and Santo Stephen, and his soul’s ascension to the Heavenly Glory. The Glory makes clear that El Greco had already developed an anti-naturalistic style for figures and space. (Slide5) In the earthly zone, which includes a gallery of portraits of Toledan gentlemen, on the other hand, the figures are only mildly attenuated and their garments are painted with the best Venetian illusionistic technique. Slide 7 The View of Toledo (c.
1597-1599; New York, Metropolitan Museum), El Greco’s only landscape, is formally consistent with his religious pictures. Its transcendental aura is a result of his compositional methods, which create a formidable tension between the patterns on the picture plane and the volumes implicit in the view, and of his characteristic cataclysmic skies and eerie light. The View is not a realistic panorama, but displays instead the city’s most notable monuments in a single image that highlights its past and present grandeur.
Slide 8 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. Perhaps the earliest, in which format, composition, and iconography reflect Venetian models, is Giulio Clovio painted in Rome c. 1570–2. His most important one, for its size and superb artistry, is the Portrait of a Cardinal (c. 1600; New York, Metropolitan Museum).
Unlike all El Greco’s portraits, austere and on a neutral ground, the Titianesque, colorist and naturalistic Portrait of a Cardinal shows his ability to render psychological and physical traits. These are conveyed through the impression of vitality and dynamism in repose of the sitter. The portrait’s format, a full-length, life-size seated figure, is rare at this date. Slide 9 El Greco’s last works testify development towards a freer, sketchy style. The painting Adoration of the Shepherds (1612–14; Madrid, Prado) is a smaller version of a work which the artist made to hang over his own tomb in the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo.
This work has been interpreted as late and extreme witness to El Greco’s mystic and spontaneous expressionism; but it may alternatively be the result of his deliberate manipulation of form, using color and movement to convey the effects of light, mass and space. Extreme distortion of body characterizes the Adoration of the Shepherds like all the last paintings of El Greco. The brilliant, dissonant colors and the strange shapes and poses create a sense of wonder and ecstasy, as the shepherd and angels celebrate the miracle of the newly born child.
The infant Christ seems to emit a light which plays off the faces of the barefoot shepherds who have gathered to pay homage to his miraculous birth. A rhythmic energy animates the painting, expressed in the dance-like motions of the figures. Slide 10. Key features of style and his contribution • El Greco transformed the Byzantine style of his early paintings into another, wholly Western manner, which was developed during his Toledo period and brought him to the climax of glory.
Stylistically, El Greco’s art is an expression of the Venetian school, and of the anti-naturalistic subjectivism of the international Mannerism of the second half of the 16th century. His deliberately distorted & elongated figures, seated n a lurid, unearthly atmosphere are seen as a pre-figuration of modern Expressionism and as an instrument by which he could express his visionary, mystical and religious personality. • His gift of colorist is revealed in the way he uses agitated and flickering light; while striking contrasts between light and dark passages heighten the sense of drama.
He prefers Venetian coloring, and reveals taste for complexity which is realized by highly original compositions of elegance and dynamism, executed in a vital style. His consummate use of palette of brilliant color was imitated and refined by Diego Velazquez. In contrast to the portraiture of the court painters of the time of Philip II, El Greco brought a new spirit to a genre not often practiced in Spain and provided Spanish painting with an example of spontaneity, from which Velazquez was to learn.
• Because of his late assimilation of a Western style, he tackled certain formal problems and, free from prejudice, rejected norms of proportion and geometrical perspective that he considered superfluous to his purposes, particularly in his search for personal originality. His almost geometrical renderings of bodies and nature give his work “flatness” that is considered a goal of “pure” art or abstraction. El Greco’s colors and “cubistic” feel inspired Spanish modernists starting with Goya and following with Picasso, Dali and Gris.
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