El Greco Portrait of an Old Man

El Greco

El Greco (1541—1614), proper name: Doménikos Theotokópoulos, was the most original artist of an age in which originality was not a guiding principle in the appreciation of art and when it could even constitute a serious personal danger.

El Greco Biography

Born on Crete under the Venetian government, El Greco moved as a youngster to Venice to study under Titian and learn from the works of Tintoretto. He was later to establish himself in Rome, where he had his consequential encounter with the Renaissance masters, and to attempt at running a Bottega of his own. His artistic triumph came with his transfer, in the 1570s, to Toledo, Spain. He came with the expectation of permanent employment at the recently built royal palace-cum-monastery of Philip II: the Escorial at Madrid, an edifice in dire need of decoration.

For unclear reasons, the King, who was later to reject the works of several other established artists from Italy, disliked El Greco’s creations, Allegory of the Holy League and Martyrdom of St. Maurice. It was possibly El Greco’s lively style, made up of stark chromatic contrasts, that unsettled the king’s conservative tastes, although the presence of contemporary persons in historical settings might have also seemed to him inappropriate.

In the Catholic world, this was the age of the Counter-Reformation, the organized Church-led campaign to respond to Protestantism with piety and rigor. The Council of Trent, begun when El Greco was only a child and completed in his adult years, had decreed a series of rules of conformity which, very significantly, affected the arts. These were supposed to conform to traditional iconographies and in no way imperil the dogmas of the faith.

El Greco, whose personal views have been an object of scholarly dispute between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, tended to endow his New-Testament figures with Michelangelesque emotional complexity. Add to this his Venetian contrasts in color and his very own preference for dark and disquieting surroundings, and something of the unease that his 16th-century spectators likely perceived communicates to us as well.

Masterpiece “Burial of the Count Orgaz”

El Greco Burial of the Count Orgaz (1586)
El Greco Burial of the Count Orgaz (1586)

His exquisitely accomplished Burial of the Count Orgaz (1586), customarily named as his absolute masterpiece, shows a gathering of contemporary Spaniards, all noblemen, watching with concern as the legendary Count in ceremonial armor is laid to rest by the high dignitaries of the Church. Soon, as per legend, the saints Augustine and Stephen will descend from the heavens and pick up the dead man before carrying him upward.

The rendition of the clergymen’s elaborate vestments is a spectacular achievement: a collection of gold and crimson embroidery which shines from the darkness in the lower part of the picture. But El Greco oversteps mere reproduction of inanimate and canonical objects: the cumbersome livery communicates its rigidity and airiness correctly, but, more impressively, the nearby priestly figure in a semitransparent cloth over his shirtings displays an impeccable craft that is as familiar with the human figure and light as any of the Italian masters was.

The lifelike rows of heads give us, correctly, an impression of picture-perfect rendition — these were indeed El Greco’s Spanish contemporaries. But the canonical architecture of angels, saints, and the Holy Family in the upper half are as surprisingly colorful in a context of darkness as the figures below and as complex and unsettling as their precedents in Michelangelo’s Last Judgement.

Michelangelo’s Last Judgement (1536 - 1541)
Michelangelo’s Last Judgement (1536 – 1541)

This is all the more impressive when we realize that El Greco, in his Roman period (1570-1573), had expressed himself strongly against Michelangelo’s masterpiece and Michelangelo himself, even going so far as to signal to Pope Pius V that he would like to repaint the Sistine Chapel. A part of his argument had involved a mention of the recently updated, anti-Protestant, Catholic teaching. But for the critic there is no doubt: El Greco understood Michelangelo and Raphael to be his masters as much as Titian and Tintoretto.

El Greco’s Modern fame

No discussion of El Greco is complete without a mention of his remarkable fortune from the beginning of the 20th century onward. Quite disregarded after his death and several times opposed in life because of his strangeness, El Greco has been very positively reëvaluated as an extremely original artist and even a precursor of Expressionism. His lively use of color — a result of a belief that color was both the most important element and the hardest to achieve — is today incomparably more appealing than it would have been to the austere years immediately following Trent.

His predilection for elongated human shapes in paintings — which sometimes served an excellent architectural purpose, as in the case of altarpieces — appears as an attempt to achieve majesty and thus a potentially Byzantine influence from his earliest days as an artist. It is a significant element of style in an Italian-trained painter acutely aware of perspective.

“View of Toledo” & “View and Plan of Toledo”

View of Toledo (1596–1600)
View of Toledo (1596–1600)

View of Toledo (1596–1600) presents us with a landscape (a rare subject matter in Counter-Reformist Spain) colored by feeling more than nature — lugubrious and unpeopled, but verdant and alive. We realize, however, that creative fancy is at play when we are told that several buildings of this Toledo skyline did not exist before El Greco’s eyes and are in fact imagined. But then artistic vision, as opposed to representative realism, confronts us anew and more forcefully with View and Plan of Toledo, a later development of the very same study.

El Greco View and Plan of Toledo 1608
El Greco View and Plan of Toledo 1608

Now the city is laid out from another direction and with a customary perspective. But a man in the foreground to the left is showing us the city’s detailed planimetry while a particular building, the Don Juan Tavera Hospital hovers in mid-air on a cloud. This was done, El Greco tells us, for no other reason than that he thought the building ought to have been seen in full. Without even touching upon the allegorical play developing above Toledo itself, as modern viewers, we are fully aware of an artistic genius seeing the world for more than it appears.

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