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.
unidentified inventory number at lower left: 104
Probably in El Greco's possession at his death; his son Jorge Manuel Theotócópuli, Toledo, in 1621. The Infante Antonio María Felipe Luis de Orleáns, Duque de Montpensier [1824-1890], Seville; by inheritance to his son, the Infante Don Antonio de Orleáns, Duque de Galliera, Sanlúcar de Barremada, Cádiz. (Durand-Ruel, Paris) by 1910. (Paul Cassirer, Berlin) by October 1915. The pianist Edwin Fischer [1886-1960], Basel and Berlin, by 1923; Eleanora Irme von Jeszenski von Mendelssohn, Berlin, who was divorced from Fischer in 1925, by 1926. T.R.H. Prince and Princess Paul of Yugoslavia, Belgrade, Johannesburg, and Paris by May 1934; 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; gift 1946 to NGA.
- Sonderausstellung El Greco, Alte Pinkothek, Munich, 1910.
- Werke alter Kunst aus Berliner Privatbesitzer, Paul Cassirer, Berlin, 1915.
- Recent Additions to the Kress Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1946, no. 885.
- 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.
- Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco): Some Works of His Early and Mature Years, Benaki Museum, Athens; National Pinakothek, Athens, 1979-1980, 12-16.
- 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.
- 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.
- El Greco. Laokoon, Museum Czartoryskich, Krakow, Poland, 1992, brochure, color repro. 8 and cover.
- 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.
- El Greco im Umfeld seiner Zeitgenossen [El Greco and His Contemporaries], Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna, September-October 2001, no cat.
- El Greco, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna, May-September 2001, no. 43, repro.
- 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.
- 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 (shown only in Boston), no. 6, repro.
- El Greco and Modernism, Museum Kunstpalast, Dusseldorf, 2012, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
- El Greco in the National Gallery of Art and Washington-Area Collections: A 400th Anniversary Celebration, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2014-2015, no catalogue.
- El Greco y la pintura moderna, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, 2014, unnumbered catalogue, fig. 125.
- 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.
- Williamson, George Charles, ed. Bryan's Dictionary of Painters and Engravers. 4th ed. 5 vols. London, 1903-1904: 5:168.
- Förster, Richard. "Laokoön im Mittelalter und in der Renaissance." Jahrbuch der königlich Preussischen Kunstsammlungen (Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen) 27 (1906): 174-175.
- 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.
- Cossío, Manuel B. El Greco. Madrid, 1908: 357-363, 579, no. 162, pl. 67 (also 1972 ed.: 207-211, 397, no. 385, fig. 66).
- Calvert, Albert Frederick, and C. Gasquoine Hartley. El Greco. London, 1909: 170-171, pl. 126.
- Mayer, August L. El Greco. Munich, 1911: 56-58, 74, 82, repro. 73 (also 1916 ed.: 32-33, 57, pl. 51).
- Mayer, August L. "Sammlungen." Kunstchronik 23 (1911/1912): 10-11.
- Kehrer, Hugo. Die Kunst des Greco. Munich, 1914: 22, 85-87, 101, pl. 61.
- Burchard, Ludwig. "Werke alter Kunst aus Berliner Privatbesitzer." Kunst und Künstler 13 (1915): 523, 525, repro. 525.
- Henry, Norman. "Vergil in Art." Art and Archaeology 5 (1917): 239, repro.
- "Die Zeit und der Markt: Sammlungen." Der Cicerone 15 (1923): 1156-1157.
- Schmid, H. U. "Über das Jahr 1923." Jahresbericht der öffentlichen Kunstsammlungen, Basel 20 (1923): 6.
- Schmid, H. U. "Über das Jahr 1924: Gemäldegalerie." Jahresbericht der öffentlichen Kunstsammlungen, Basel 21 (1924): 6.
- "Bericht über das Jahr 1925 und 1926." Jahrbuch für Kunst und Kunstpflege in der Schweiz 4 (1925/1926): 60.
- Kehrer, Hugo. Spanische Kunst. Munich, 1926: 96-97, repro. 98.
- Mayer, August L. Dominico Theotocopuli, El Greco. Munich, 1926: 50, no. 311, pl. 116.
- Riggenbach, R. "Über das Jahr 1926: Gemäldegalerie." Jahresbericht der öffentlichen Kunstsammlungen, Basel 23 (1926): 27.
- Fischer, Otto. "Über das Jahr 1927." Jahresbericht der öffentlichen Kunstsammlungen, Basel 24 (1927): 6.
- Saxl, Fritz. Review of El Greco by August L. Mayer. In Kritische Berichte zur kunstgeschichtlichen Literatur (1927/1928): 95-96, fig. 11.
- Fischer, Otto. "Bericht über das Jahr 1928: Gemäldegalerie;" "Bericht über das Jahr 1929." Jahresbericht der öffentlichen Kunstsammlungen, Basel 25/27 (1928/1930): 6, 34.
- Villar, Emilio H. del. El Greco en España. Madrid, 1928: 132-133, pl. 28.
- Mayer, August L. El Greco. Berlin, 1931: 138-139, 163, fig. 120.
- Clark, Kenneth. "Report: National Gallery, 1935." National Gallery and Tate Gallery Directors' Reports 1935. London, 1935: 4.
- Legendre, Maurice, and Alfred Hartmann. Domenikos Theotokopoulos Called El Greco. Paris, 1937: 482, repro.
- Goldscheider, Ludwig. El Greco. London, 1938: 8, 16, pl. 216 (also 1954 rev. ed.: pl. 193).
- Bourgeos, Stephen. Byrdcliffe Afternoons. Woodstock, New York, 1939: 99-101.
- Kehrer, Hugo. Greco als Gestalt des Manierismus. Munich, 1939: 100-108, pl. 13.
- Cook, Walter S. "El Greco's Laocoön in the National Gallery." Gazette des Beaux-Arts 26 (1944): 261-272, figs. 1-2, 4-6.
- Chamberlain, Betty. "Recent Additions to the Kress Collection." The Burlington Magazine 88, no. 517 (April 1946): 82.
- "Vernissage." Art News 45 (April, 1946): 17, repro.
- 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).
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Great Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1952: 80, color repro.
- Frankfurter, Alfred M. "Interpreting Masterpieces: Twenty-four Paintings from the Kress Collection." Art News Annual 16 (1952): 99-100, repro. 96
- Guinard, Paul. El Greco. Translated by James Emmons. Cleveland, 1956: 104, 106, repro. 102, color repros. 103-104.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1956: 32, repro.
- Walker, John. "The Nation's Newest Old Masters." The National Geographic Magazine 110, no. 5 (November 1956): 634, repros. 644 (details).
- Shapley, Fern Rusk. Comparisons in Art: A Companion to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. London, 1957 (reprinted 1959): pl. 46.
- Gaya Nuño, Juan Anotonio. La pintura española fuera de España; historia y catàlogo. Madrid, 1958: 206, no. 1424.
- Soehner, Halldor. "Greco in Spanien." Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst 9/10 (1958/1959); 181, 194, fig. 59.
- Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 269, repro.
- 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.
- Kehrer, Hugo. Greco in Toledo. Stuttgart, 1960: 69-70, figs. 75-76.
- 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.
- 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
- Neugass, Fritz. "Die Auflösung der Sammlung Kress." Die Weltkunst 32 (1 January, 1962): 3, repro.
- 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).
- Sánchez Cantón, Francisco Javier. El Greco. London, 1963: 43-44, pl. 44.
- 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.
- Hauser, Arnold. Mannerism. Translated by Eric Mosbacher in collaboration with the author. 2 vols. New York, 1965: 1:269; 2:pl. 300.
- Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 62.
- 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.
- European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 55, repro.
- Manzini, Gianna, and Tiziana Frati. L'opera completa del Greco. Milan, 1969: no. 166, color pls. 48-51.
- Palm, Erwin Walter. "El Greco's Laokoön." Pantheon 27 (1969): 129-135, figs. 1-5.
- Vetter, Ewald W. "El Greco's Laokoön `reconsidered'." Pantheon 27 (1969): 295-299.
- Palm, Erwin Walter. "Zu zwei späten Bildern von El Greco." Pantheon 28 (1970): 298-299.
- Waterhouse, Ellis. "Some Painters and the Counter Reformation Before 1600." Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, London 22 (1972): 114.
- Finley, David Edward. A Standard of Excellence: Andrew W. Mellon Founds the National Gallery of Art at Washington. Washington, 1973: 89, repro. 90.
- 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).
- Walker, John. Self-Portrait with Donors. Boston, 1974: 144-146, repro. 145.
- Winner, Matthias. "Zum Nachleben des Laokoön in der Renaissance." Jahrbuch der königlich Preussischen Kunstsammlungen (Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen) 16 (1974): 113, n. 90.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 162, repro.
- 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.
- Davies, David. El Greco. London, 1976: 10, 16, n. to pl. 41, color pls. 41-43.
- Crombie, Theodore. Review of El Greco by David Davies. Apollo 106 (1977): 321.
- 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).
- Waterhouse, Ellis. Review of El Greco by David Davies. The Burlington Magazine 120 (1978): 32.
- Watson, Ross. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1979: 60, pl. 44.
- López Torrijos, Rosa. "El Bimilienario de Virgilio y la pintura española del siglo XVII." Archivo Español de Arte y Arqueologia 54 (1981): 397-398.
- 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.
- Moffitt, John F. "A Christianization of Pagan Antiquity." Paragone 35 (November, 1984): 44-60, pl. 31.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 240, no. 307, color repro.
- Caviro, Balbina M. "Los Grecos de don Pedro Laso de la Vega." Goya 184 (January-February, 1985): 217-219, repro. 219.
- European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 188, repro.
- López Torrijos, Rosa. La mitología en la pintura española del Siglo de Oro. Madrid, 1985: 220-222, 224, fig. 84.
- 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.
- Kitaura, Yasunari. "El procedor artístico de El Greco." Boletin del Museo de Prado. 7 (1986): 85-91.
- 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.
- El Greco of Crete: Exhibition on the Occasion of the 450th Anniversary of his Birth. Exh. cat. Iraklion, 1990: 185, fig. 7, 349.
- Gingold, Diane J. and Elizabeth A.C. Weil. The Corporate Patron. New York, 1991: 22-23, color fig.
- Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 185, color repro.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 82, repro.
- Tomlinson, Janis. From El Greco to Goya: Painting in Spain, 1561-1828, New York, 1997, no. 30, repro.
- 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.
- Zuffi, Stefano and Francesca Castria, La peinture baroque. Translated from Italian by Silvia Bonucci and Claude Sophie Mazéas. Paris, 1999: 24, color repro.
- Horgan, Marta. "The Golden Age of Spanish Art." Washington Parent (April 2001): 14.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 110-112, no. 85, color repros.
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.
Explore This Work
But they went on straight toward Laocoön, and first each serpent
Seized in its coils, his two young sons, and fastened
the fangs in those poor bodies. And the priest
Struggled to help them…
They seized him, bound him with their mighty coils…
He uttered horrible cries, not even human
More like the bellowing of a bull, when wounded
Virgil, The Aeneid
In his haunting painting Laocoön, El Greco depicts a violent Greek myth as if it had taken place in his adopted city of Toledo, Spain. According to Virgil’s Aeneid, Laocoön, the priest of Troy, recognized the monumental wooden horse proffered by the enemy Greeks for what it was: a trick rather than a gift. Hurling his spear at it, he implored the Trojans not to pull the horse into the city. The goddess Minerva, who favored the Greeks, avenged his action by sending two serpents to kill the priest and his two sons. The Trojans, misreading the cause of Laocoön’s death, drew the horse into the city, where the Greek soldiers hidden inside it ambushed the Trojans and laid waste to Troy.
Attributed to Francesco Xanto Avelli, Urbino, possibly with assistants, Shallow bowl on low foot with the death of Laocoön and his two sons, 1539
El Greco’s painting is a study of tumult and anguish. The bearded Laocoön, sprawled awkwardly on his back, wears a look of terror as he struggles to fend off a writhing serpent, jaws agape, which lunges at his head. One son lies dead behind him. The second, at left, desperately twists and strains to keep the other serpent from piercing his thigh. The wooden horse is visible in the background (pointed to by the standing son’s outstretched hand) approaching Toledo’s gates. At the far right, two unfinished standing figures, perhaps Greek gods, witness the action without intervening.
By elongating the naked bodies of Laocoön and his sons, El Greco exaggerates their corporeality even as he renders them conceptual rather than lifelike figures. The harsh lighting, heightened by the dark paint outlining the bleached bodies’ contours, plainly exposes the men’s plight and imparts a flickering, spectral quality to their freely painted flesh. The push-and-pull between the taut, overlapping, angular bodies and the arabesques formed by the serpents together with the threatening storm clouds, the unforgiving landscape, and illogically constructed space contribute to a singularly nightmarish scene of upheaval.
The meaning of El Greco’s Laocoön remains obscure. The artist’s only extant mythological scene, it likely represents a Christianized take on classical subject matter. In substituting Toledo for Troy, El Greco may have been warning his fellow citizens not to succumb to some contemporary treachery, perhaps religious practices he viewed as antithetical to Counter-Reformation edicts. Doubtless familiar with the renowned ancient sculpture of Laocoön that had been uncovered in Rome in 1506, the famously self-confident El Greco may have tackled the same subject to demonstrate that his artistic abilities were equal to those of anyone in history.
Christ Cleansing the Temple, probably before 1570.
El Greco painted this work during his short stay in Venice.
About the Artist
Domenikos Theotokopoulos, known as El Greco (the Greek), was born and raised in Crete, which was then part of the Venetian Republic. He trained as an icon painter in the Byzantine tradition and by 1563 had become a master painter. El Greco left Crete for Venice in 1568 to study Western painting and was especially influenced by the rich palettes and sketchy styles of Tintoretto and Titian. Two years later he arrived in Rome, where he became intensely interested in the major humanist and philosophical questions of the day. El Greco stayed in Rome for seven years, and even opened a studio, but failed to win public commissions. Notoriously prickly and outspoken, El Greco reportedly offended influential Romans after declaring that the city’s much-beloved Michelangelo did not know how to paint. Soon after, El Greco went to Spain.
In July 1577 the artist arrived in Toledo, where he quickly came in contact with a circle of learned churchmen who appreciated his work. By 1585 he had established a workshop that produced altar frames and statues as well as paintings. He received numerous commissions from religious institutions in and around Toledo and private individuals sought him out both for devotional images and for his acclaimed portraiture. He lived and worked in his adopted home of Toledo until his death in 1614, after which his son took over the workshop.
A fascinating and erudite artist who knew several languages, El Greco was renowned during his lifetime for his artistic originality and his extravagant lifestyle. His large religious works fuse Venetian color and Roman monumentality in fantastic, vertiginous compositions that convey a sense of the miraculous. While closely associated with the spiritual zeal of the Counter-Reformation, El Greco was also a painter-philosopher fundamentally concerned with the artistic and intellectual questions surrounding the means and purpose of artistic representation. His subjective, mannered style of painting, featuring elongated, intertwined figures and non-natural colors, emanated from his understanding that art should engage the intellect rather than slavishly copy nature.