Commissioned for the Chapel of San José in Toledo by Martín Ramírez, a namesake of the saint and donor of the chapel, Saint Martin and the Beggar was part of one of the artist's most successful ensembles.
The saint, who lived during the reign of Constantine the Great, was a member of the imperial cavalry stationed near Amiens, in Gaul. Coming upon a shivering beggar near the city gates on a cold winter day, the young soldier divided his cloak with his sword and shared it with him. Tradition has it that Christ later appeared to Martin in a dream, saying, "What thou hast done for that poor man, thou hast done for me."
El Greco portrayed the fourth-century saint as a young nobleman, clad in elegant gold-damascened armor, astride a white Arabian horse. Seen from a low vantage point, the figures seem monumental, looming over the landscape with its distant view of Toledo and the river Tagus. The saint's relatively naturalistic proportions contrast with the attenuated form of the nearly nude beggar. The obvious distortion of the beggar's form suggests that he is not of this world and hints at the later revelation of his true identity in Martin's dream.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication Spanish Paintings of the Fifteenth through Nineteenth Centuries, which is available as a free PDF https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/spanish-painting-15th-19th-centuries.pdf
lower right in cursive Greek: doménikos theotokópoulos e'poíei (Domenicos Theotocopoulis made this)
Commissioned 9 November 1597 by the Capilla de San José [Chapel of Saint Joseph], Toledo; sold 1906 by the directors of the chapel to (Boussod Valadon, Paris); sold in same year to Peter A. B. Widener [1834-1915], Elkins Park, PA; inheritance from Estate of Peter A. B. Widener by gift through power of appointment of Joseph E. Widener [1860-1943], Elkins Park, PA.
- Loan Exhibition of Paintings by El Greco and Goya, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York, 1915, 38, no. 37.
- El Greco of Toledo, The Toledo [Ohio] Museum of Art; Prado, Madrid; National Gallery of Art, Washington; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1982-1983, 168, 241, no. 30, pl. 17.
- El Greco: The Illumination and Quickening of the Spirit, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The National Gallery, London, 2003-2004, no. 38, 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, no. 1, repro.
- Picasso et les Maîtres, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris; National Gallery, London, 2008-2009, unnumbered catalogue, repro. (shown only in Paris).
- 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: Painter and Master, Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo, March-June 2014, not in catalogue.
- El Greco y la pintura moderna, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, June-October 2014, unnumbered catalogue, fig. 98.
- The Spanish Golden Age: Painting and Sculpture in the Time of Velázquez, Gemaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, 2016.
In structure and condition the painting is almost identical to its companion piece, Madonna and Child with Saint Martina and Saint Agnes (1942.9.26). The support is a single piece of linen with an unusual diamond-weave pattern. The tacking edges have been removed, but the original format was retained. The wooden strip attached to the bottom is a later addition. The gypsum ground and the two layers of reddish-brown imprimatura above it do not hide the weave texture. El Greco left the imprimatura exposed in several places: notably, to outline the head and shoulders of the beggar and the upraised leg of the horse.
Analysis of several cross sections by the NGA science and conservation departments reveals a complex layering of colors above the gesso and imprimatura. The artist utilized a variety of techniques, from wet-on-wet to scumbling. Impasto was used for Martin's collar and cuffs. X-radiographs reveal that the raised index finger of the saint's left hand originally was painted lower and that the neckstrap of the horse was placed higher. There are no major losses, except in the area of a one and one-half inch wide tear, located six inches from the bottom edge and twenty inches from the left edge. The painting was taken off a panel stretcher in 1942 and relined.
 The technical notes are based on Susanna Pauli, "Two Paintings by El Greco: Saint Martin and the Beggar. Analysis and Comparison" (forthcoming publication, conservation department papers, National Gallery of Art). I am grateful to her for allowing me to discuss some of her findings here.
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