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El Greco

(1541—1614)


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(b Candia [now Iraklion], Crete, c.1541; d Toledo, 7 Apr. 1614).

Cretan-born painter, sculptor, and architect who settled in Spain and is regarded as the first great genius of the Spanish School. His real name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos and it was thus that he signed his paintings throughout his life, always in Greek characters, and sometimes followed by Kres (Cretan). To avoid the tongue-twisting name, he was known in Spain as Domenico Griego or simply El Griego (the Greek). Evidently it was not until after his lifetime that the curious form ‘El Greco’ was adopted (curious because ‘El’ is Spanish and ‘Greco’ is Italian). Little is known of his early years, and only a few works survive by him in the Byzantine tradition of icon painting, notably the signed Dormition of the Virgin discovered in 1983 (church of the Dormition, Syros). In 1567 or 1568 he moved to Venice (Crete was then a Venetian possession), and late in 1570 he is described as ‘recently arrived’ in Rome. The miniaturist Giulio Clovio, who became a friend of El Greco there, referred to him as a ‘disciple’ of Titian, but of all Venetian painters Tintoretto influenced him most, with his sense of movement and dramatic lighting (El Greco's turbulent skies are often particularly reminiscent of Tintoretto).

It is generally presumed that El Greco remained in Rome until 1576 (when he is first recorded in Spain), but there is little documentation on his time in the city, and it has been suggested that he returned to Venice for a while. Clovio was an influential friend, and through him El Greco gained accommodation in the Palazzo Farnese; however, he received no public commissions in Italy and worked on a fairly small scale. Among his surviving pictures of the period are two paintings of the Purification of the Temple (Minneapolis Inst. of Arts, and NG, Washington), a favourite theme with him, and a portrait of Clovio (Mus. di Capodimonte, Naples). Accomplished though they are, they give little hint of the explosion of genius that occurred after he settled in Spain. He is documented in Madrid in 1576, and by the following year he was in Toledo, where he lived for the rest of his life. His decision to move there was presumably influenced by the young Spanish priest Luis de Castilla, part of his circle in Rome, whose father was dean of Toledo Cathedral and a man of considerable influence. El Greco quickly gained major commissions in his new home, beginning with the high altarpiece of the church of S. Domingo el Antiguo (1577). The central part of the altarpiece, a 4 m (13 ft) high canvas of the Assumption of the Virgin (Art Inst. of Chicago), was easily his biggest work to date, but he carried off the dynamic composition triumphantly. A succession of great altarpieces followed throughout his career, the two most famous being El Espolio (Christ Stripped of His Garments) (1577–9, Toledo Cathedral) and the Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1586–8, S. Tomé, Toledo). These two mighty works convey the awesomeness of great spiritual events with a sense of mystic rapture, and in his late work El Greco went even further in freeing his figures from earthbound restrictions: the Adoration of the Shepherds (1612–14, Prado, Madrid), painted for his own tomb, is a prime example. His style has something in common with Italian Mannerism in its use of elongated figures and non-rational space, but his flame-like forms, electric colours, and ecstatic emotion are intensely personal. Toledo at this time was the spiritual capital of Spain, with more than a hundred religious establishments, so El Greco had little need to look beyond it for commissions; he attempted to win royal favour but failed, as Philip II (see Habsburg) rejected an altarpiece he painted for the Escorial.

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Subjects: Art.


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