National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: El Greco (Spanish, 1541–1614)

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The man known as El Greco was a Greek artist whose emotional style vividly expressed the passion of Counter-Reformation Spain. Here at the National Gallery is the most important collection of his work outside that country, which was his adopted home.

The haunting intensity of El Greco's paintings—resulting from their unnaturally long figures and strong contrasts of color and light—has invited a kind of mythmaking about his life and art. Following his death, El Greco's work fell into obscurity and, after its rediscovery in the nineteenth century, was often misunderstood. El Greco has been called a prophet of modern art, a mystic, and even a man whose sight was distorted by astigmatism, all misconceptions that have clouded understanding of his distinctive but deliberate style.

El Greco's Style

Born on the island of Crete, Domenikos Theotokopoulos acquired the name El Greco—the Greek—in Italy and Spain. After working as an icon painter in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, he left Crete in 1568 to study western-style painting in Venice. There he was influenced by the Venetian artists Titian and Tintoretto, embracing their rich colors and free, sketchy manner of painting. After about two years he moved to Rome, where artists such as Michelangelo had developed a new mannerist style in which realistic portrayals of the physical world were shunned in favor of a more subjective view, one that existed not in nature but in the intellect. In mannerist works space was compressed, colors were bizarre, and figures became elongated and were intertwined in complex poses. Mannerism, from the Italian word for style, was highly self-conscious and artificial, emphasizing the artist's virtuosity and stylishness. Its intellectual basis appealed to El Greco, who enjoyed the company of scholars and, himself, wrote treatises on art and architecture.

Failing to win major commissions in Italy, El Greco moved to Spain. By 1577 he was in Toledo, where he remained for the rest of his life and produced his most important works. In the relative isolation of Spain, he continued to explore and intensify the possibilities of mannerism while his contemporaries in Italy returned to more naturalistic styles.

El Greco and the Counter-Reformation

El Greco's style, highly charged and hypnotic, was well suited to the aims of the Counter-Reformation. In the face of Protestant revolt, the Catholic church sought to reform its practices and reinforce belief in its doctrines. Spain put its vast resources—expanded by conquests in the New World—at the service of the church, and Toledo, because it was the seat of the archbishop, played an active role. The Council of Trent, which met in the mid-sixteenth century to clarify Counter-Reformation goals, explicitly recognized the importance of religious art. El Greco, whose patrons were primarily learned churchmen, responded with intelligent and expressive presentations of traditional and newly affirmed Catholic beliefs. His works underscored with powerful images the importance of the sacraments, the Virgin, and saints.

Timeline of Events in Europe during the Counter-Reformation

1517 Luther launches Protestant revolt
1540 Saint Ignatius Loyola founds Jesuit order
1541 Birth of El Greco
1543 Copernicus publishes On the Revolution of Celestial Bodies
1556 Philip II assumes the Spanish throne
1563 Final session of the Council of Trent codifies Catholic reforms
Building of Escorial palace and monastery outside Madrid
1564 Death of Michelangelo
1565 Spanish explorers establish Saint Augustine, Florida
1576 Death of Titian
Flanders joins the Netherlands in revolt against Spanish rule
1580 First comedias of Lope de Vega produced
1582 Spanish mystic Saint Theresa of Avila dies
1584 Flanders returned to Spanish control
1587 Mary Queen of Scots beheaded after making Philip II her heir
1588 Spanish Armada defeated by English fleet
1598 Philip III assumes the throne of Spain after death of Philip II
1604 Shakespeare writes Othello
1605 First parts of Cervantes' Don Quixote appear
1614 Death of El Greco
1615 Galileo appears before the Inquisition for supporting Copernican theory

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