El Greco by Spike Ress

El Greco SP

Yesterday, Spike Ress, Aestheticons friend, Watercolorist and source of much History of Art, gave us a fascinating glimpse into the work of El Greco (1541 – 1614) on what is thought to have been his birthday. With Spike’s kind permission I repost his piece here.

Today is believed to the birthday of El Greco, birth name Doménikos Theotokópoulos. El Greco was born in 1541, exact date unknown, he lived until April 7, 1614.

El Greco was a painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance. “El Greco” (“The Greek”) was a nickname, a reference to his Greek origin, given to him by the Spanish; however, he normally signed his paintings with his full birth name in Greek letters.

El Greco was born in Crete, which was at that time part of the Republic of Venice and the center of Post-Byzantine art. He trained and became a master within that tradition before traveling at age 26 to Venice, as other Greek artists had done. In 1570 he moved to Rome, where he opened a workshop and executed a series of works. During his stay in Italy El Greco enriched his style with elements of Mannerism and of the Venetian Renaissance.

In 1577, he moved to Toledo, Spain, where he lived and worked until his death. In Toledo, El Greco received several major commissions and produced his best-known paintings.

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El Greco’s dramatic and expressionistic style was met with puzzlement by his contemporaries but found appreciation in the 20th century some 300 years after his death.

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El Greco is regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism. His personality and works were a source of inspiration for poets and writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Nikos Kazantzakis. El Greco has been characterized by modern scholars as an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school.

He is best known for tortuously elongated figures and often fantastic or phantasmagorical pigmentation, marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting.

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In 1577 El Greco moved to Madrid, then to Toledo. At the time Toledo was the religious capital of Spain and a populous city with “an illustrious past, a prosperous present and an uncertain future”. El Greco did not plan to settle permanently in Toledo, since his final aim was to win the favor of Philip and make his mark in his court. Indeed, he did manage to secure two important commissions from the monarch: Allegory of the Holy League and Martyrdom of St. Maurice. However, the king did not like these works and placed the St Maurice altarpiece in the chapter-house rather than the intended chapel. He gave no further commissions to El Greco. The exact reasons for the king’s dissatisfaction remain unclear. Some scholars have suggested that Philip did not like the inclusion of living persons in a religious scene.

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Lacking the favor of the King, El Greco was obliged to remain in Toledo, where he had been received in 1577 as a great painter. He continued to secure other important commissions. According to Hortensio Félix Paravicino, a 17th-century Spanish preacher and poet, “Crete gave him life and the painter’s craft, Toledo a better homeland, where through Death he began to achieve eternal life.”

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El Greco made Toledo his home. Surviving contracts mention him as the tenant from 1585 onwards of a complex consisting of three apartments and twenty-four rooms which belonged to the Marquis de Villena. It was in these apartments, which also served as his workshop, that he passed the rest of his life painting and studying. He lived in considerable style, sometimes employing musicians to play whilst he dined.

It is not confirmed whether he lived with his Spanish female companion, Jerónima de Las Cuevas, whom he probably never married. She was the mother of his only son, Jorge Manuel, born in 1578, who also became a painter.

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