El Greco - Spain's First Great Master Artist

Self-portrait painted by El Greco.
Self-portrait painted by El Greco. | Source
The Assumption of the Virgin, painted by El Greco.
The Assumption of the Virgin, painted by El Greco.
The Disrobing of Christ by El Greco.
The Disrobing of Christ by El Greco. | Source

El Greco 1541-1614

Surprisingly, Spain's first great painter of notice was not even Spanish at all, but Greek. But, the Spanish have adopted Domenikos Theotokopoulas as their own "son" even though he was born on the island of Crete. Because he lived most of his adult life in Toledo, Spain and painted Spanish commissions, the Spanish awarded him the nickname El Greco - it was a lot easier to say than his given Greek name but at the same time they honored his origional roots. So, from the time he went to live in Spain, he was known there and eventually all over the world as El Greco and this nickname has come down in history and is how he is referred to in the history books, art history books, and the museums where his works now hang.

El Greco was a painter, sculptor, and architect during the Spanish Renaissance, which happened and few decades later than the Italian Renaissance. He was origionally born on the island of Crete and at that time Crete was part of the Republic of Venice (Italy) and which was the center of the Post-Byzantine Art. He first was in training as an icon painter of the Cretan school. Along with painting, he studied the classics of ancient Greece and Rome. In 1563 at twenty-two years of age, he was already a master in the artist's guild in Crete and operating his own artist's workshop.

From around 1567-1570, El Greco moved to Venice and lived and painted there as as part of a Venetian apprenticeship. In 1570, he next went to Rome to study and work and sought to distinguish himself by inventing new and unusual interpretations of traditional religious subject matter. He completed several large religious commissions in Rome and the works he painted in Rome were greatly influenced by the Venetian Renaissance style that he had previously studied in Venice. He painted agile, elongated figures like Tintoretto and used a chromatic framework like that of Titan. The Venetian school had taught him how to organize multi-figured compostions in landscapes vibrant and bold with atmospheric light. In Rome, El Greco learned to paint with elements of violent perspective and vanishpoints in his paintings.

El Greco began to establish his style of painting while in Rome. All the figures in his paintings began to take on the slender, elongated look that became the mark of his mature paintings. His figures displayed strange attitudes struck by the figures with their repeated twisting and turning and tempesious gestures. By the time El Greco went to Rome, Michaelangelo and Rafael were dead, but most Italian painters were still painting in their styles. El Greco was determined to make his own mark and fiercly defended his personal artistic view, ideas, and style. However, El Greco did allow Michaelangelo and Rafael to influence him a bit, along with Titan as he felt they were all worthy enough as painters. But, because he was fostering his own individualistic style he acquired some enemies in Rome.

Therefore, in 1577, El Greco emigrated first to Madrid and then to Toledo, Spain, located approximately fifty kilometers south of Madrid. Here, El Greco lived for the rest of his life and where he produced his mature works. At the time El Greco moved to Toledo and during his lifetime there, Toledo was the religious capital of Spain and Philip II was the King of Spain and in the process of building El Escorial, his great monastery and palace.

El Greco's first large commission in Toledo was to paint several paintings to hang in the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo. The painting was the The Assumption of the Virgin. It was this painting, when completed that would establish El Greco's reputation as a painter in Toledo. El Greco had planned to be a royal court painter for King Philiip II, but the king did not favor his painting style and gave El Greco no further commissions. King Philip felt the style of El Greco's paintings were more important than the content. So, El Greco established a workshop in Toledo and took as his assistant the Italian painter, Francisco Prebosts.

During his life in Toledo, El Greco also became highly esteemed as an architect and sculptor during his lifetime. He created sculptures and altars for churches and chapels as well as paintings. One of his important architectural achievements was the church and monastery of Santo Domingo el Antiguo as he completed all the sculptures and paintings in the church. He also became known as the painter who incorporated architecture in his paintings with the architectural frames of his paintings.

When El Greco died in 1614, his art was not immediately glorified and was distained and opposed by those who were by that time painting in the Baroque style of the beginning of the 17th century. At this time El Greco was thought to be incomprehesible and had no important followers. By 1908, Spanish art historian, Manuel Bartolome Cassio published the first catalogue of El Greco's works and presented El Greco to the world as the founder of the Spanish school. jFrom this point on, El Greco has been recognized as Spain's first great master painter.

El Greco's expressiveness and colors influence later artists, Delacorix and Manet. His strucure of figures influenced Cezanne and Picasso who used distortion of the human body in their paintings. Picasso admired El Greco's cold tonality in his paintings. He liked the structure analysis of El Greco's compositions and the multi-faceted refraction of form and the interweaving of form and spaced and the special effects of high lights.

View of Toledo, by Spanish Renaissance painter,  El Greco, depicting his adopted home in Spain.
View of Toledo, by Spanish Renaissance painter, El Greco, depicting his adopted home in Spain. | Source

El Greco's Technique and Style

El Greco did achieve his own individualistic painting style different from those of his time; in fact, his paintings do not fit into any category of his contemporary colleagues. For El Greco, the fundamental principle of style was the use of imagination and intuition over the subjective character of creation. He discarded the classical criterea of measure and proportion. He strongly believed grace was the supreme quest of art and that the painter only achieved grace if he managed to solve the most complex problems with obvious ease. He also believed color was the most important element of painting and declared that color had primacy over form. That can be seen in his paintings which use bold, vibrant colors that stand out and capture the viewers attention and interest.

Modern scholars characterize El Greco's theory as that of a Mannerist as well as a definite influence of Byzantine art. I would have to agree with them because of his early experience painting religious icons. Although, he added dimension to his figures in his paintings, El Greco still had a feel of the Post-Byzantine art in his paintings. In his mature works, all painted in Spain, El Greco had a tendancy to dramatize rather than to describe. A strong spiritual emotion transfers from the painting to the audience as seen in his most famous work, The Burial of the Count Orgaz.

El Greco preferred tall, slender figures and elongated compostions. The anatomy of body of his figures becomes even more otherworldly in his mature works, such as the Assumption of the Virgin (1577) and the Disrobing of Christ. El Greco exhibited an interweaving between form and space as a reciprocal relationship is developed between the two which completely unifies the painting surface. This interweaving showed up three centuries latert in the works of Cezanne and Picasso. El Greco's use of light in his paintings is also unique. Each figure carries its own llight within or reflects the light that comes from an unseen source. This use of light gives power to the paintings as focus is always on the area that is most lit.

El Greco was Greek by descent, Italian by artistic preparation, but El Greco became immersed in the religious environment of Spain. His paintings beecame the most visual representation of Spanish mysticism. This intense mood refected the religious spirit of Roman Catholic Spain. During his time in Spain. El Greco excelled as a portrait painter as he was able to convey both the features and the character of the person he painted. El Greco has been put on the same level as Titan and Rembrant in his portrait painting.

The Burial of the Count Orgaz, painted by El Greco, and is displayed in the church of St. Tome in Toledo, Spain.
The Burial of the Count Orgaz, painted by El Greco, and is displayed in the church of St. Tome in Toledo, Spain. | Source
El Greco's self-portrait in The Burial of the Count Orgaz
El Greco's self-portrait in The Burial of the Count Orgaz | Source

The Burial of the Count Orgaz

This painting is El Greco's finest work. The painting is an illustration of a popular local legend of Toledo and his time. It is an enormous painting divided into two sections, the heavenly above and the earth below. The upper and the lower sections are brought together compositionally. The theme of the painting was inspired by a legend from the beginning of the 14th century. Count Orgaz was a pious Spanish man who left a large sum of money for the enlargement and decoration of the church of Santo Tome, also El Greco's parish church. The Count was a philanthropist and right-thinking Knight. Because of his station in life at the time he was buried St. Stephen and St. Augustine descended in person from heaven and buried him by their own hands in front of the suprised and awed eyes of those attending the funeral.

The painting was commissioned by Andres Nunez, the parish priest of Santo Tome for the side chapel where it is today. It was painted by El Greco between 1586-1588. It is admired not only for the artistic composition, style and technique, but also for the gallery of portraits of the most eminent men in the town of Toledo. The custom at that time was for the nobles and important men to assist in the burial. This painting ranked El Greco as a great portrait painter. He also painted his self-portrait in the painting located directly above the raised hand of one of the mourners and direcly above the head of St. Stephen. The young boy at the left of the painting is El Greco's son, Jorge Manuel.

As mentioned before, the painting has two distinct zones. The top part of the painting is heaven complete with swirling, icy clouds, semi-abstract in shape. They are transparent and iridescent. The two saints are tall and phantomlike. The bottom half of the painting is earth and reality. It is normal in scale and proportion. Both zones are brought together by the standing figures in varied participation in the burial and the heavenly event by the torches and cross.

The scene of the miracle takes place in the lower part of the composition. In heaven, the clouds have parted to receive the Count. Christ is the main figure in heaven clad in white and in the light, and is the crowning point of the triangle formed by the figures of Mary and St. John the Baptist. They are surrounded by apostles martyrs, Biblical figures and even King Philip II who really was still alive then.

Saint Augustine and Stephen, handling the body of the Count are clothed in vestments of gold and red. The Count is clad in magnificent armour that reflects the yellow and red colors. The colors of this painting are rich, expressive and radiant and the colorful vestments represent the intense ceremonial character of the scene.

I have viewed most of El Greco's paintings in Spain and this one in the tiny church of Santo Tome is breathtakingly large and beautiful. It really makes a statement because it is so huge and painted so vibrantly. I think with El Greco's paintings, you either like his style or dislike it. There is no in between. I have found this to be true when talking to others as they view this painting. Also, within sight of the church, you can see El Greco's home and artist's workshop. They are open today as museums and you can view them most days.

El Greco gave Spain the influence they needed in the art world at the time. This was Spain's Golden Age and El Greco's paintings made the world sit up and look at his works. El Greco and his paintings are beloved to Spain and the Spaniards. Most of his paintings are located in El Escorial, which I am sure El Greco would just love. Some are in The Prado in Madrid and there are two housed in New York City's Museum of Modern Art. If given the chance, see an El Greco painting in person. There is a lot to look at and view!

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Comments 7 comments

dragonflyfla profile image

dragonflyfla 4 years ago from South Florida

Wow, such rich colors.


Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 4 years ago from San Francisco

Thank you for this awesome report


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

dragonflyfla: I love dragon flies by the way. Seeing your avatar made me think how cool it would have been to be a fly on the wall in one of El Greco's artist workshops. Back to reality - Thank you so much for stopping by to read and view. I hope you enjoyed this. Yes, his colors are so bold and really make his paintings stand out from the rest. El Greco really did his own thing. Thanks so much for your comments!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Mhatter99: Glad you enjoyed another one of these. I'm on an art kick right now. Thanks so much for stopping by to read and view. I appreciate your support!


Amy Becherer profile image

Amy Becherer 4 years ago from St. Louis, MO

I think it is so interesting, suzette, that it's said you either like or dislike El Greco's style, because I was trying to figure out if I do or not. Some aspects of this painter's style, I love. I think the only dislike I have are the martyred expressions on the faces in the religious themes, which has an element of surreal amongst great realism often depicted in religious art. I think his color and use of lighting is magnificent. His greatest painting is brilliant. I adore his landscape painting "View of Toledo". Art is subjective and there is no doubt that El Greco was a master. Once again, suzettenaples, you have given another brilliant artist justice with your well-educated, very readable and thought-provoking analysis. I can see your laudable teaching skills. Thank you


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Amy: Thanks for some interesting comments! I agree with you about the faces in his paintings. I think that is why he is credited with there being so much expression in his paintings, but I agree with you. Some of their tortured looks are a bit much. I am so glad you enjoyed this article as I enjoy writing them. You are quite the artist yourself - your paintings are very, very good. So those kind compliments coming from you really are meaningful to me. THANK YOU!


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 4 years ago from Taos, NM Author

Amy: Thanks for some interesting comments! I agree with you about the faces in his paintings. I think that is why he is credited with there being so much expression in his paintings, but I agree with you. Some of their torchered looks are a bit much. I am so glad you enjoyed this article as I enjoy writing them. You are quite the artist yourself - your paintings are very, very good. So those kind compliments coming from you really are meaningful to me. THANK YOU!

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