Heavily influenced by the colorism of Venetian Renaissance paintings, El Greco moved from Crete to living most of his life in Spain, where he produced paintings characterized by their electrifying colors and spirit of mysticism.
El Greco was born in Crete, then part of the Venetian republic and his earliest paintings are in the medieval Greek Byzantine style. Aged 26 he moved to Venice, then to Rome in 1570, then in 1577 to Toledo in Spain where he was to remain. In Venice he absorbed the work of Titian (1488/90–1576), Tintoretto (1519–94) and Jacopo Bassano (ca. 1510–92). The impact of Tintoretto in particular is obvious in the various versions of Christ and the Money Changers. During his sojourn at Rome he could study Michelangelo and his numerous followers.
In Toledo he later celebrated his adoptive city in a hallucinatory view now in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. His first Spanish paintings, notably the Pietà in the Niarchos collection have a freshness and an almost maritime luminosity which was to change as his work became more visionary and inward looking. His mighty Assumption of the Virgin in Chicago, perhaps the best Greco in America, still retains the fresh palette of the Niarchos picture while the sharp-edged drapery folds slicing across the figures became one of the most recognizable features of his expressionistic style. His most famous painting is the Burial of Count Orgaz in Toledo, which possibly in response to Titian’s Assunta in Venice and his later Gloria in the Escorial near Madrid, perfectly fuses the earthly ceremony with the celestial world for which the count is destined. Greco had less success with royal patronage. Philip II disliked his Martyrdom of St Maurice and the artist received no further commissions from the King. It is in his late work like the Opening of the Fifth Seal (1608–14) in the Metropolitan Museum that his much-acknowledged appeal to the German expressionists and Picasso, notably in the Demoiselles d’Avignon, is best understood. Greco’s figures are here transformed by an irresistible current of energy into shimmering wraiths who no longer control their destiny.
El Greco’s portraits are best seen in groups, where their reticent mastery of personality is more easily appreciated. He also painted a few genre paintings, notably of Boys Blowing on a Coal, which have been seen as an attempted reconstruction of an antique painting. Their rusticity probably derives from Jacopo Bassano while their tenebrous intimacy anticipates eighteenth-century taste for the picturesque, especially the English artist Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–97).
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Books on El Greco
Rebecca J Long, ed., El Greco: Ambition and Defiance, exh. cat., Chicago, 2020.
Fernando Marías, El Greco: Life and Work – A New History, London, 2019.
Gianna Manzini and Tiziana Frati, L’Opera Completa del Greco, Milan, 1978.
Antonio Palomino de Castro y Lelasco, Lives of the Eminent Spanish Painters and Sculptors, 1715-24, trans. Nina Alaya Mallory, Cambridge, 1987.