Overview

Widespread interest in the story of Laocoön, a mythical priest of Troy, developed after an ancient, monumental sculpture representing him and his two sons was unearthed in 1506 in Rome. Suspecting trickery, Laocoön had warned his countrymen not to accept the wooden horse left outside Troy by the Greeks and had hurled his spear at it to prove that it was hollow. Thus the priest incurred the wrath of the gods, for desecrating an object dedicated to the goddess Athena. El Greco depicted serpents, sent by the angry gods, engaging Laocoön and one son in a mortal struggle, while a second son lies already dead at his father's side. The identity of the unfinished figures on the right continues to be debated; perhaps they represent the gods themselves supervising their vengeance.

Utilizing every available means — writhing line, lurid color, and illogically conceived space — the artist projected an unrelieved sense of doom. The figures seem incorporeal; sinuous outlines and anti–natural flesh tones contribute to their specterlike appearance. The striking setting carries this visionary late work of El Greco to an apocalyptic extreme.

Did El Greco intend to relate this mythical theme of conflict and divine retribution to the Inquisition then raging in Toledo? Whatever the case, the story of Laocoön is the only classical theme he is known to have painted.

Inscription

unidentified inventory number at lower left: 104

Marks and Labels

null

Provenance

Probably in El Greco's possession at his death;[1] his son Jorge Manuel Theotócópuli, Toledo, in 1621.[2] The Infante Antonio María Felipe Luis de Orleáns, Duque de Montpensier [1824-1890], Seville;[3] by inheritance to his son, the Infante Don Antonio de Orleáns, Duque de Galliera, Sanlúcar de Barremada, Cádiz.[4] (Durand-Ruel, Paris) by 1910.[5] (Paul Cassirer, Berlin) by October 1915.[6] The pianist Edwin Fischer [1886-1960], Basel and Berlin, by 1923;[7] Eleanora Irme von Jeszenski von Mendelssohn, Berlin, who was divorced from Fischer in 1925, by 1926.[8] T.R.H. Prince and Princess Paul of Yugoslavia, Belgrade, Johannesburg, and Paris by May 1934;[9] consigned by Prince Paul in 1946 to (M. Knoedler and Co., London, Paris, and New York), who sold it later that year to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[10] gift 1946 to NGA.

Exhibition History

1910
Sonderausstellung El Greco, Alte Pinkothek, Munich, 1910.
1915
Werke alter Kunst aus Berliner Privatbesitzer, Paul Cassirer, Berlin, 1915.
1946
Recent Additions to the Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1946, no. 885.
1961
Art Treasures for America: An Anthology of Paintings & Sculpture in the Samuel H. Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1961-1962, no. 124, 126, repro.
1979
Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco): Some Works of His Early and Mature Years, Benaki Museum, Athens; National Pinakothek, Athens, 1979-1980, 12-16.
1982
El Greco of Toledo, The Toledo [Ohio] Museum of Art; Prado, Madrid; National Gallery of Art, Washington; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1982-1983, 256-257, no. 56, pls. 68, 69.
1989
Masterpieces of Western European Painting of the XVIth-XXth Centuries from the Museums of the European Countries and USA, State Hermitage Museum, Leningrad, 1989, no. 6, repro.
1992
El Greco. Laokoon, Museum Czartoryskich, Krakow, Poland, 1992, brochure, color repro. 8 and cover.
1994
A Gift to America: Masterpieces of European Painting from the Samuel H. Kress Collection, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Seattle Art Museum; Calif. Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 1994-1995, no. 9.
2001
El Greco im Umfeld seiner Zeitgenossen [El Greco and His Contemporaries], Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna, September-October 2001, no cat.
2001
El Greco, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna, May-September 2001, no. 43, repro.
2003
El Greco: The Illumination and Quickening of the Spirit, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The National Gallery, London, 2003-2004, no. 69, repro.
2008
El Greco to Velázquez: Art during the Reign of Philip III, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, 2008, no. 6, repro.
2012
El Greco and Modernism, Museum Kunstpalast, Dusseldorf, 2012, unnumbered catalogue, repro.

Bibliography

1866
Catálogo de los cuadros y esculturas pertenecientes á la galeria de SS. AA. RR. los Sereníssimos Señores Infantes de España, Duques de Montpensier. Seville, 1866: 44, no. 155.
1903
Williamson, George, ed. Bryan's Dictionary of Painters and Engravers. 4th ed. 5 vols. London, 1903-1904: 5:168.
1906
Förster, Richard. "Laokoön im Mittelalter und in der Renaissance." Jahrbuch der königlich Preussischen Kunstsammlungen (Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen) 27 (1906): 174-175.
1907
Thieme, Ulrich, and Felix Becker, eds. Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart. 37 vols. Leipzig, 1907-1950:. 33(1939):7.
1908
Cossío, Manuel B. El Greco. Madrid, 1908: 357-363, 579, no. 162, pl. 67 (also 1972 ed.: 207-211, 397, no. 385, fig. 66).
1909
Calvert, Albert Frederick, and C. Gasquoine Hartley. El Greco. London, 1909: 170-171, pl. 126.
1911
Mayer, August L. El Greco. Munich, 1911: 56-58, 74, 82, repro. 73 (also 1916 ed.: 32-33, 57, pl. 51).
1911
Mayer, August L. "Sammlungen." Kunstchronik 23 (1911/1912): 10-11.
1914
Kehrer, Hugo. Die Kunst des Greco. Munich, 1914: 22, 85-87, 101, pl. 61.
1915
Burchard, Ludwig. "Werke alter Kunst aus Berliner Privatbesitzer." Kunst und Künstler 13 (1915): 523, 525, repro. 525.
1917
Henry, Norman. "Vergil in Art." Art and Archaeology 5 (1917): 239, repro.
1923
"Die Zeit und der Markt: Sammlungen." Der Cicerone 15 (1923): 1156-1157.
1923
Schmid, H. U. "Über das Jahr 1923." Jahresbericht der öffentlichen Kunstsammlungen, Basel 20 (1923): 6.
1924
Schmid, H. U. "Über das Jahr 1924: Gemäldegalerie." Jahresbericht der öffentlichen Kunstsammlungen, Basel 21 (1924): 6.
1925
"Bericht über das Jahr 1925 und 1926." Jahrbuch für Kunst und Kunstpflege in der Schweiz 4 (1925/1926): 60.
1926
Kehrer, Hugo. Spanische Kunst. Munich, 1926: 96-97, repro. 98.
1926
Mayer, August L. Dominico Theotocopuli, El Greco. Munich, 1926: 50, no. 311, pl. 116.
1926
Riggenbach, R. "Über das Jahr 1926: Gemäldegalerie." Jahresbericht der öffentlichen Kunstsammlungen, Basel 23 (1926): 27.
1927
Fischer, Otto. "Über das Jahr 1927." Jahresbericht der öffentlichen Kunstsammlungen, Basel 24 (1927): 6.
1927
Saxl, Fritz. Review of El Greco by August L. Mayer. In Kritische Berichte zur kunstgeschichtlichen Literatur (1927/1928): 95-96, fig. 11.
1928
Fischer, Otto. "Bericht über das Jahr 1928: Gemäldegalerie;" "Bericht über das Jahr 1929." Jahresbericht der öffentlichen Kunstsammlungen, Basel 25/27 (1928/1930): 6, 34.
1928
Villar, Emilio H. del. El Greco en España. Madrid, 1928: 132-133, pl. 28.
1931
Mayer, August L. El Greco. Berlin, 1931: 138-139, 163, fig. 120.
1935
Clark, Kenneth. "Report: National Gallery, 1935." National Gallery and Tate Gallery Directors' Reports 1935. London, 1935: 4.
1937
Legendre, Maurice, and Alfred Hartmann. Domenikos Theotokopoulos Called El Greco. Paris, 1937: 482, repro.
1938
Goldscheider, Ludwig. El Greco. London, 1938: 8, 16, pl. 216 (also 1954 rev. ed.: pl. 193).
1939
Bourgeos, Stephen. Byrdcliffe Afternoons. Woodstock, New York, 1939: 99-101.
1939
Kehrer, Hugo. Greco als Gestalt des Manierismus. Munich, 1939: 100-108, pl. 13.
1944
Cook, Walter S. "El Greco's Laocoön in the National Gallery." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 26 (1944): 261-272, figs. 1-2, 4-6.
1946
Chamberlain, Betty. "Recent Additions to the Kress Collection." The Burlington Magazine 88, no. 517 (April 1946): 82.
1946
"Vernissage." Art News 45 (April, 1946): 17, repro.
1950
Camón Aznar, José. Dominico Greco. 2 vols. Madrid, 1950: 2:805, 880, 914-921, 1390, no. 696, figs. 714-717, 719-720 (also 1970 rev. ed., 2:815, 883, 918-924, 997, 1292, 1376, no. 684, figs. 780-783, 785-786).
1952
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Great Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1952: 80, color repro.
1952
Frankfurter, Alfred M. "Interpreting Masterpieces: Twenty-four Paintings from the Kress Collection." Art News Annual 16 (1952): 99-100, repro. 96
1956
Guinard, Paul. El Greco. Translated by James Emmons. Cleveland, 1956: 104, 106, repro. 102, color repros. 103-104.
1956
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1956: 32, repro.
1956
Walker, John. "The Nation's Newest Old Masters." The National Geographic Magazine 110, no. 5 (November 1956): 634, repros. 644 (details).
1957
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Comparisons in Art: A Companion to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. London, 1957 (reprinted 1959): pl. 46.
1958
Gaya Nuño, Juan Anotonio. La pintura española fuera de España; historia y catàlogo. Madrid, 1958: 206, no. 1424.
1958
Soehner, Halldor. "Greco in Spanien." Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst 9/10 (1958/1959); 181, 194, fig. 59.
1959
Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 269, repro.
1960
Evans, Grose. Spanish Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1960 (Booklet Number Ten in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.): 20, color repro.
1960
Kehrer, Hugo. Greco in Toledo. Stuttgart, 1960: 69-70, figs. 75-76.
1960
The National Gallery of Art and Its Collections. Foreword by Perry B. Cott and notes by Otto Stelzer. National Gallery of Art, Washington (undated, 1960s): 20, color repro. 13.
1961
Seymour, Charles. Art Treasures for America: An Anthology of Paintings & Sculpture in the Samuel H. Kress Collection. London, 1961: 131-134, color repro. pl. 124-126
1962
Neugass, Fritz. "Die Auflösung der Sammlung Kress." Die Weltkunst 32 (1 January, 1962): 3, repro.
1962
Wethey, Harold E. El Greco and His School. 2 vols. Princeton, 1962: 1:50-51, 61, 63, figs. 144-145; 2:83-84, no. 127 (also Spanish ed. Madrid, 1967: 1: 66-67, 76, 78, pls. 128-129; 2: 98, no. 127).
1963
Sánchez Cantón, Francisco Javier. El Greco. London, 1963: 43-44, pl. 44.
1963
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 164, no. 885, color repro. 165.
1965
Hauser, Arnold. Mannerism. Translated by Eric Mosbacher in collaboration with the author. 2 vols. New York, 1965: 1:269; 2:pl. 300.
1965
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 62.
1966
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 1:202, color repro.
1968
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 55, repro.
1969
Manzini, Gianna, and Tiziana Frati. L'opera completa del Greco. Milan, 1969: no. 166, color pls. 48-51.
1969
Palm, Erwin Walter. "El Greco's Laokoön." Pantheon 27 (1969): 129-135, figs. 1-5.
1969
Vetter, Ewald W. "El Greco's Laokoön `reconsidered'." Pantheon 27 (1969): 295-299.
1970
Palm, Erwin Walter. "Zu zwei späten Bildern von El Greco." Pantheon 28 (1970): 298-299.
1972
Waterhouse, Ellis. "Some Painters and the Counter Reformation Before 1600." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, London 22 (1972): 114.
1973
Finley, David Edward. A Standard of Excellence: Andrew W. Mellon Founds the National Gallery of Art at Washington. Washington, 1973: 89, repro. 90.
1973
Gudiol, José. Domenikos Theotokopoulos, El Greco. Translated by Kenneth Lyons. New York, 1973: 268-271, 356, no. 227, color fig. 250, fig. 251 (also 1983 ed.: 268-271, color fig. 250, fig. 251).
1974
Walker, John. Self-Portrait with Donors. Boston, 1974: 144-146, repro. 145.
1974
Winner, Matthias. "Zum Nachleben des Laokoön in der Renaissance." Jahrbuch der königlich Preussischen Kunstsammlungen (Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen) 16 (1974): 113, n. 90.
1975
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 162, repro.
1975
Lafuente Ferrari, Enrique, and José Manuel Pita Andrade. El Greco: The Expressionism of His Final Years. Translated by Robert E. Wolf. New York, 1975: 61, 73-74, 114, 136-137, 162, no. 145, color fig. 93, color pls. 7-9.
1976
Davies, David. El Greco. London, 1976: 10, 16, n. to pl. 41, color pls. 41-43.
1977
Crombie, Theodore. Review of El Greco by David Davies. Apollo 106 (1977): 321.
1977
Eisler, Colin. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian. Oxford, 1977: 195-201, figs. 198-200, text fig. 45, color repro. (detail).
1978
Waterhouse, Ellis. Review of El Greco by David Davies. The Burlington Magazine 120 (1978): 32.
1979
Watson, Ross. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1979: 60, pl. 44.
1981
López Torrijos, Rosa. "El Bimilienario de Virgilio y la pintura española del siglo XVII." Archivo Español de Arte y Arqueologia 54 (1981): 397-398.
1983
Rogelio Buendía, José. "Humanismo y simbología en El Greco: el tema de la serpiente." Studies in the History of Art (1983): 42-45, repros. 43-44.
1984
Moffitt, John F. "A Christianization of Pagan Antiquity." Paragone 35 (November, 1984): 44-60, pl. 31.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 240, no. 307, color repro.
1985
Caviro, Balbina M. "Los Grecos de don Pedro Laso de la Vega." Goya 184 (January-February, 1985): 217-219, repro. 219.
1985
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 188, repro.
1985
López Torrijos, Rosa. La mitología en la pintura española del Siglo de Oro. Madrid, 1985: 220-222, 224, fig. 84.
1985
Pita Andrade, José Manuel. "Sobre la presencia del Greco en Madrid y de sus obras en las colecciones madrileñas del siglo XVII." Archivo Español de Arte y Arqueologia 58 (1985): 329.
1986
Kitaura, Yasunari. "El procedor artístico de El Greco." Boletin del Museo de Prado. 7 (1986): 85-91.
1990
Brown, Jonathan, and Richard G. Mann. Spanish Paintings of the Fifteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1990: 60-67, color repro. 63.
1990
El Greco of Crete: Exhibition on the Occasion of the 450th Anniversary of his Birth. Exh. cat. Iraklion, 1990: 185, fig. 7, 349.
1991
Gingold, Diane J. and Elizabeth A.C. Weil. The Corporate Patron. New York, 1991: 22-23, color fig.
1991
Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 185, color repro.
1992
National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 82, repro.
1997
Tomlinson, Janis. From El Greco to Goya: Painting in Spain, 1561-1828, New York, 1997, no. 30, repro.
1998
Gibson, Sarah S. “Serpent’s Bite." In Encyclopedia of Comparative Iconography: Themes Depicted in Works of Art. Edited by Helene E. Roberts. 2 vols. Chicago, 1998: 2:815.
1999
Zuffi, Stefano and Francesca Castria, La peinture baroque. Translated from Italian by Silvia Bonucci and Claude Sophie Mazéas. Paris, 1999: 24, color repro.
2001
Horgan, Marta. "The Golden Age of Spanish Art." Washington Parent (April 2001): 14.
2004
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 110-112, no. 85, color repros.

Technical Summary

The support is a fine-weight, plain-weave fabric, lined to a similar fabric. Over the white ground El Greco applied a thin red imprimatura, which he left exposed in many parts of the composition. The paint was applied in rich, opaque layers with thin, scumbled brushwork in the areas of lighter color. Although there is no high impasto, the brushwork is lively and textured. X-radiographs reveal only a few minor revisions of the composition. The painting was cleaned and restored by Mario Modestini in 1955. Extensive areas of loss in the throat, chest, and legs of the figure at the far left and in the raised leg of Laocoön were inpainted, as were smaller scattered damages. Modestini removed loincloths which had been painted over the figures at the far left and far right and a large bouffant coiffure which had been added to the female figure at the right. He also exposed the middle head of the group of three now visible at the right and the fifth leg between the two standing figures at the right. The painting is in fair condition.

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