Born in the mid-sixteenth century, Domenicos Theotokopoulos would rise to fame as the artist known simply as El Greco (‘The Greek’). Combining many strands of European technique, El Greco developed his own unique style that won him great acclaim as one of the leading figures of the Spanish Renaissance. This article unpacks everything you need to know about the artist, his masterpieces, and his experiences.
10. El Greco Was Strongly Influenced By His Early Environment
The young Theotokopoulos grew up on the thriving island of Crete, which was then under control of the Venetian Republic and served as a key point on the bustling maritime routes that connected east and west. As a result, he was exposed to a variety of cultures, which undoubtedly influenced the methods and techniques he would later apply to his art.
He was born into a prosperous family: his father was a tax collector and his elder brother a wealthy merchant. This meant that Domenicos was afforded a good education, learning the classical languages and becoming familiar with the principles of mathematics, engineering and art that had developed from the ancient world onwards. He trained as a painter within the Cretan school, which had around two hundred official members, and was then the center of post-Byzantine art.
By the age of 22, he was already a master in the guild of Cretan artists, potentially running his own studio. During this period, he produced a number of devotional works, such as the Modena Triptych, St Luke Painting the Virgin and Child and his famous Adoration of the Magi.
9. El Greco Took A Different Approach To Religious Art
Devotional art dominated Cretan painting during El Greco’s lifetime, but he brought something new to this well-established genre. There is debate over whether the Theotokopoulos family was Greek Orthodox or Catholic by faith; one relative was certainly an Orthodox priest, but El Greco described himself as a Catholic in his will, although this may have been due to pressure from the Spanish. In any case, it is clear that the artist was exposed to both religious denominations and consequently their distinct styles of devotional art.
In his own religious paintings, El Greco combines the style of the Cretan School, which was heavily influenced by Eastern Orthodox iconography, and Mannerism, which had developed in Italy earlier in the sixteenth century. In his icon Dormition of the Virgin, for instance, the individual figures and color palette are typical of post-Byzantine icons, while the composition and structure of the whole image are more akin to the religious paintings created during the Italian Renaissance.
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El Greco’s unique approach to devotional art is the product of time and place: during the sixteenth century, reformation and tradition were constantly coming into conflict, meaning that artists sought new ways of understanding faith; similarly, his native Crete placed the artist at the convergence of many different cultures, artistic styles and modes of thought.
8. It Was In Italy That El Greco Refined His Artistic Style
After completing his initial training in Crete, El Greco moved to Venice for several years in his late teens or early twenties. Although there is little evidence from his time in Italy, a letter records that he was a student of the aged but nonetheless prominent Titian. It is not clear whether this meant that El Greco was employed in Titian’s workshop, or simply that he was an avid follower of the artist. In either case, the influence of the Venetian master is evident in the paintings El Greco produced while in Rome, where he stayed with the great patron of the arts, Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. The friendship of the Cardinal gave the young painter access to Rome’s elite circles, made up of other artists, intellectuals and future patrons.
In Italy, El Greco picked up a range of new artistic techniques and methods. From the Venetian school, he adopted Titian’s effective use of color, as well as the slender, lithe figures of Tintoretto; in Rome, he honed his technical skills, learning to compose his scenes around a vanishing point and arrange landscapes to create a sense of depth. Combined with the post-Byzantine style he had learnt in Crete, these new Italian features made El Greco’s style utterly unique.
7. In Rome, El Greco Acquired An Interesting Reputation
Although he established himself in Rome as a master painter with his own workshop and assistants, and joined the Guild of Saint Luke, El Greco did not find himself entirely welcome. One prominent architect and writer labeled the painter a ‘foolish foreigner’ and he was eventually forced to leave because of a disagreement with the Cardinal.
While the exact details of these conflicts are not recorded, it isn’t difficult to see why El Greco might have ruffled some feathers in Rome. He is known to have been highly ambitious and stubborn, determined to win a name for himself and his art. This attitude resulted not only in a great appraisal of his own talents, but also outspoken criticism of the work of other artists. For instance, despite being heavily influenced by Michelangelo, El Greco claimed that the Old Master ‘did not know how to paint’ and even suggested to Pope Pius V that he should employ him to paint over the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel!
6. El Greco Then Tried His Luck In Spain
After falling out with several of his contemporaries in Italy, El Greco moved to Spain, where he first tried to make his mark in Madrid. At the time, the great palace of El Escorial was being built, and King Philip II was eager to find artists to produce masterpieces to adorn its walls. Although he sought out some of the great Italian masters, they all refused to travel to Spain. And so, when El Greco arrived in the capital, Philip commissioned him to paint an altarpiece, showing the martyrdom of St Maurice.
The masterpiece El Greco produced was bold and dynamic, but Philip appears to have been less than impressed. The artwork had been destined for the chapel of El Escorial, but the king relegated it to the less important chapter-house. It is not clear exactly what Philip found so distasteful in the painting. Perhaps the chaotic mass of figures in the background or the swirling, apocalyptic sky clashed too much with the principles of clarity and harmony that had dominated during the High Renaissance. In any case, the king refused to grant El Greco any further commissions.
5. And Finally Won The Reputation He Craved In Toledo
When his big break failed to materialize in Madrid, El Greco hit the road once again, this time settling in Toledo, where he lived for the remainder of his life. At the time, Toledo was Spain’s religious center, a cultural hub that was home to a number of prominent intellectuals, important churchmen and artists. El Greco came to know many of these figures, among them the dean of Toledo Cathedral, Diego de Castilla. Through Castilla, he was awarded many prestigious commissions to produce art for some of the city’s most impressive churches.
Within just a few years of relocating, El Greco had produced numerous paintings for the churches and citizens of Toledo, including some of his best-known masterpieces, such as The Assumption of the Virgin. It was during this time that his art reached its peak, and his reputation was finally established. A contemporary even described El Greco as ‘one of the greatest men in both this kingdom and outside it’.
4. His Final Decades Were Also His Most Successful
His initial success in Toledo allowed El Greco to hire assistants and open his own workshop, where he produced not only paintings but also frames for altarpieces and statues. He was even involved in architecture, playing a key role in the reconstruction of the church and monastery of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, for which he had produced many paintings during his early years in Toledo.
The city seemed to instill him with a new lease of life, as he began producing ever more original and magnificent pieces of art, such as The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, now his most famous masterpiece. The turn of the seventeenth century also saw an renewed burst of creativity from the artist: from 1597 to 1605, he produced at least 11 major paintings for various churches across Spain.
In a fitting but somewhat macabre end, El Greco’s very last painting, the Adoration of the Shepherds, was designed to adorn his own tomb. The artist uses the dramatic contrast between light and shadow to create a powerful sense of light and hope radiating from the newborn Christ.
3. El Greco Had A Vibrant Personal Life
From the disparate anecdotes that have survived, we can piece together an interesting and amusing image of El Greco’s personal life.
Even after his clashes in Italy, El Greco found himself embroiled in scandal in Spain too. In 1607, for instance, he was engaged in a dispute concerning payment for his paintings, sculptures and building work. Along with other legal cases, this left him in financial difficulties. But this did not seem to prevent him from living in indulgence: the apartments in which he lived and worked were said to be extremely lavish, with musicians playing for him and his guests while they feasted. Among his companions was Jeronima de Las Cuevas, his mistress and the mother of his only son.
Another document records El Greco’s bizarre preference for working in the dark. Apparently, he chose to rely on his ‘inner light’ and kept his curtains drawn, refusing to have his paintings distorted by light from the outside world. Combined with his famous offer to re-do the work of Michelangelo, these anecdotes form the impression of a self-assured and eccentric character.
2. And A Style That Was Just As Interesting
El Greco’s eccentricity is certainly reflected in his art, which scholars have struggled to categorize. His unique combination of Byzantine tradition and Renaissance innovation means that El Greco’s work falls outside the boundaries of any conventional school of art. With his unbridled imagination, he broke free from all artistic constraints. Rather than faithfully replicating reality, his dramatic scenes capture certain feelings and emotions.
By employing broad strokes and bold contrast between light and darkness, El Greco conjures up different atmospheres, while a certain transcendence is evoked through his otherworldly, elongated forms. Similarly, his passionate use of color causes the various features of his paintings to blend together, forcing the audience to contemplate the relationship between the figures and their environment.
1. El Greco’s Legacy Came Into Its Own Many Centuries Later
Although many of his contemporaries, including Philip II, were left nonplussed by El Greco’s novel approach to painting, his work came to be properly appreciated centuries later. The emergence of Romanticism in the 18th century brought with it an interest in the exotic, the emotional and the elaborate. Ticking all of these boxes, his paintings began to be acknowledged as masterpieces, inspiring the likes of Eugène Delacroix and Édouard Manet.
It was only in the 20th century, however, that the world of art truly realized the debt it owed to El Greco’s memory. The structural morphology at work in El Greco’s later paintings is seen as an important element in the principles of the Expressionist, Cubist and Symbolist movements. Among the exponents of these styles was Pablo Picasso, who studied El Greco’s work in Paris during the early 1900s. It is thought that his famous Les Demoiselles d’Avignon was inspired by the Opening of the Fifth Seal, particularly the way in which form and space are distorted and blended.
The impact of El Greco’s work on these later artistic movements demonstrates the importance of his legacy, showing that while his paintings may have been rejected or disdained during his lifetime, they went on to secure his place in the canon of art history.