Spanish painter called ‘the Greek’ because he was born in Crete. He studied in Italy, worked in Rome from about 1570, and by 1577 had settled in Toledo. He painted elegant portraits and intensely emotional religious scenes with increasingly distorted figures and unearthly light, such as The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586; Church of S Tomé, Toledo).
His passionate insistence on rhythm and movement and vehement desire for intensity of expression were conveyed by the elongation and distortion of figures, and unusual and disturbing colour schemes with calculated clashes of crimson, lemon yellow, green, and blue, and livid flesh tones. Perspective and normal effects of lighting were disregarded, and the young El Greco is recorded as having said that the daylight blinded him to the inner light. The characteristic El Greco can be seen in the Martyrdom of St Maurice (1581–84; Madrid, Escorial). The huge Burial of Count Orgaz combines austere dignity with rapturous sublimity. Later compositions include The Agony in the Garden (National Gallery, London, and other versions) and the soaring vertical ascent of Pentecost, Resurrection, and Adoration of the Shepherds (Prado, Madrid).
Training He was trained by Greek monks in his native island of Crete as an icon painter in the Byzantine tradition, and habitually signed his paintings in Greek characters. Crete was then a Venetian possession, and as a young artist he went to Venice. He is stated to have been a pupil of Titian, though his early work seems to owe more to Jacopo Bassano (c. 1510–1592) and Tintoretto, and it is possible that he was also influenced by Antonio Correggio.
Rome In 1570, as recorded by his friend the Dalmatian miniature painter Giulio Clovio (1498–1578), who gained him an introduction to cardinal Alessandro Farnese (1520–1589), he went on to Rome, where he stayed for six years. It is said that he spoke in somewhat contemptuous terms of Michelangelo's Last Judgement, though his Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple (in several versions) shows him to have borrowed figures and details of composition not only from the Venetians but also from Michelangelo and Raphael.
Toledo El Greco settled in Toledo in 1577, his aim no doubt in going to Spain being to work for Philip II, a lover of Venetian art. Failing to please the king's taste, he did not take up residence in the royal capital, Madrid. Toledo, however, was still much the larger of the two cities, a centre of industry and craft and also the ecclesiastical capital, headquarters of the Jesuits and the Counter-Reformation. A foreigner when he arrived, speaking only Greek and Italian, El Greco stayed in Toledo for the rest of his life, and the religious and spiritual character of his works links him inseparably with the spirit of the time and place. His work was evidently much approved and in demand, though the decay of the city seems to have brought him to poverty in his later years.
Work Italian influences remained in his work until about 1580, and in his first commissions at Toledo. These included a now dismembered altarpiece for Santo Domingo el Antiguo, the Trinity (Prado) and Assumption (Chicago), the latter based on the Assumption of Titian, and the Espolio/Disrobing of Christ for Toledo Cathedral.
The later period of his life produced portraits superbly characterized (and refuting the supposition that El Greco's elongations in other works were due to some defect of eyesight). Cardinal Niño de Guevara (New York, Metropolitan Museum) is one of his great portraits, and a remarkable collection is in the Prado. His single pure landscape, View of Toledo (Metropolitan Museum), typically selects the intense and abnormal atmosphere of storm. El Greco may have been the first painter to exploit the mysterious and rich effects of shadow produced by artificial light, as in his Boy Blowing on Coals (Naples).
Influence The many duplicates, revisions, and versions of his paintings suggest a busy studio, though the part played by assistants does not seem clear and he had no follower of note. This is hardly surprising in view of his essential individuality. His complex inheritance as an artist, his background and personal genius, combine to give a unique quality to his achievement. On Spanish painting his influence was small, though Diego Velázquez studied his portraiture and method of design.
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