El Greco, regarded as “too odd for his time”, is celebrated as a master for all times in a stunning 400th anniversary exhibit and film that opened Nov. 2 at Washington’s National Gallery of Art.
El Greco’s (1541–1614) supernatural style of elongated figures, strongly contrasting light and color that glow with intensity, and religious fervor of Spain’s Counter-Reformation fused the styles of Byzantine (some would say bizarre), Italian Renaissance, and Mannerism.
Throughout the years, critics have even opined that he was a mystic, or myopic, or both. But they were the short-sighted ones: El Greco is often regarded as one of the most influential artists in history, a prophet of modernism, as Picasso and other 20th century painter have noted.
“His work has always evoked strong reactions. You either like it or hate it,” said David Alan Brown, the National Gallery of Art’s (NGA) curator of Italian and Spanish paintings, who curated “El Greco in the National Gallery of Art and Washington-Area Collections: A 400th Anniversary Celebration”.
Brown termed El Greco “a visionary who realized his inner vision in a very pictorial, very complicated way.”
The curator also termed the painter “ambitious” (some might say arrogant). “He thought of himself in the same terms as Titian, Tintoretto, and Michelangelo — these giants,” whose works El Greco had studied in Italy. El Greco even said that Michelangelo didn’t know how to paint!
At the NGA’s pre-opening reception, Spain’s Ambassador to the U.S., Ramon Gil-Casares, said the artist was “misunderstood initially, but has gained profound admiration in the last century and today.”
The ambassador added that “This landmark exhibition demonstrates El Greco’s importance among collectors and artists, from Impressionists to Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock and Thomas Hart Benton, who admired El Greco’s expressive aspects.”
Born Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Crete, El Greco became a master icon painter by his early 20s, and at age 26, moved to Venice and later to Rome to study. But, to quote his friend, painter Francisco Pacheco, El Greco’s style was “too odd for his time”, making it very difficult to gain commissions.
So the Greek artist moved to the religious center of Spain, Toledo, hub of the Counter-Reformation. Although he finally gained commissions, his difficulties continued. King Phillip II rejected El Greco’s altarpiece the monarch had commissioned for his new monastery-palace El Escorial. Also, the artist was involved with several lawsuits against others about his work.
It’s all told in the NGA’s companion film, “An Artist’s Odyssey”. The documentary gives intriguing insight into Domenikos Theotokopoulos’ geographical and artistic journey — strategic steps he made to develop into the artist El Greco. Narrated by Oscar®-winner Adrien Brody, the film is an illuminating start, or finish, for this exhibit.
“El Greco in the National Gallery of Art and Washington-Area Collections” offers 11 masterpieces, most from the NGA, that has one of the largest collections of his work in the United States. The show’s other El Grecos are from Dumbarton Oaks and the Phillips Collection in Washington, and from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.
The painting “Saint Ildefonso“ had been owned by Edgar Degas, one of the first collectors of El Greco works. Degas and also Manet introduced El Greco’s art to Mary Cassatt, and to major American collectors.
“All these American millionaire collectors competed with each other, and created a kind of El Greco craze, an El Greco fad,” noted curator Brown during a pre-opening tour. “That’s why there’re so many wonderful El Greco masterpieces in this country, due to the competition of collectors like the Wideners and the Havemeyers.”
[Many more can be seen in New York City, in two exhibits opening Nov. 4:
- “El Greco in New York” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, including works loaned by the Hispanic Society of America. Hemingway’s favorite painting was said to be El Greco’s “Vista de Toledo”, and he visited it at the Met whenever he was in New York City.
- “El Greco at The Frick Collection”. Henry Clay Frick was another American collector, whose Fifth Avenue home is a museum a short walk from the Met.]
Some 50 El Greco works are in museums in about 20 U.S. cities. Here are a few in “El Greco in the National Gallery of Art and Washington-Area Collections”:
- “Laocoön” (NGA). The eerie canvas is his most controversial work, and his one surviving mythological painting. It’s based on the Trojan horse legend in Virgil’s “Aeneid”, and named for Troy’s martyred mystical priest, Laocoön. El Greco substituted a view of Toledo for Troy. The work symbolizes topics from the Counter-Reformation, ranging from Christian martyrdom to criticism of the clergy. This painting was “hugely popular in the 20th century, especially with German Expressionists and Picasso,” Brown noted.
A master of conveying religious passion of the Counter-Reformation, El Greco presented saints in ecstatic devotion.
- “The Repentant Saint Peter” (The Phillips Collection). Images of penitent saints served to affirm the legitimacy of penitence, or confession, a sacrament scorned by Protestants but passionately defended by Catholics during the Counter-Reformation.
- “Saint Jerome” (NGA). In this unfinished canvas (look at the right bottom corner), Saint Jerome kneels, clutching the bloodied rock that he used to beat his chest in repentance for his love of classical learning.
Two altarpieces for Toledo’s Chapel of Saint Joseph were brought together for this show, and cleaned recently, revealing the original color relationships and vibrancy of El Greco’s brushwork:
- “Saint Martin and the Beggar” and “Madonna and Child with Saint Martina and Saint Agnes“.
- A replica of “Saint Martin and the Beggar”, hanging near the original, was created by El Greco’s large workshop. An “astute businessman…he oversaw the creation of many replicas of his most admired compositions.” Even so, due to the many lawsuits seeking payment for rejected compositions, he died in financial difficulties.
He fell into obscurity for the next three centuries.
But as predicted in his epitaph, by monk and poet Paravincino: “Crete gave him life and paintbrushes. Toledo, a better home, where through death he began to attain eternity.”
For more info: “El Greco in the National Gallery of Art and Washington-Area Collections: A 400th Anniversary Celebration”, Nov. 2-Feb. 16, Free, National Gallery of Art, www.nga.gov, Constitution and 6th Streets, N.W., Washington, D.C., 202-737-4215.