How El Greco’s Expressive Paintings Inspired Artists from Velázquez to Van Gogh

Julia Fiore
Sep 26, 2018 4:46PM

We can learn a lot about the mastery of the 16th-century painter El Greco by exploring a single work, Burial of Count Orgaz (1586–88). In the composition’s inky night, a huddled perimeter of black-clad men—their faces pale and bearded, framed with lacy ruffs—watch as the pallid Count Orgaz is lowered into his final resting place by the radiant Saints Augustine and Stephen.

Yet not everyone in El Greco’s commanding painting is focused on the man’s lifeless body. The priest gazes to the sky with awe. There! The Count’s mortal soul, borne by an angel, ascends into a realm brightly illuminated by godly transcendence. Saint John, Saint Peter, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus, flanked by angels, receive him into heaven in a billowing whirl of gray smoke and yellow silk.

Notice, though, one small figure who seems unconcerned with the miraculous funeral service unfolding before him: A young boy towards the painting’s bottom left corner regards the viewer directly as he gestures back to the scene. The child serves as a sober intermediary between reality and marvel, life and artwork. He is, in fact, a depiction of El Greco’s son, and he confronts onlookers with the central concern of his father’s life and work: achieving in art a heightened sense of reality—a deeply personal, emotional form of spiritual expression.

Born Doménikos Theotokópoulos in 1541, El Greco’s rapacious curiosity and ambition led him from the flat, symbolic world of the Byzantine icon workshops in his native Crete to Venice in 1567. There, he immersed himself in the art theory espoused by the Italian Renaissance painters, purportedly apprenticing with Titian (or, more likely, idolizing him from afar).

El Greco, Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, c. 1570. Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.


From 1570 to 1577, El Greco set up shop in Rome, where he encountered exceedingly elegant, unnaturally contorted Mannerist works by artists such as Michelangelo and Parmigianino. During his sojourn in Italy, El Greco absorbed everything he could about the perspectival and compositional techniques pioneered during the Renaissance, which he seemed to master in great haste. He remains known by his Italian nickname, El Greco (“The Greek”), a reflection of the great impression the country made on him.

He shows his admiration for this new tradition in Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple (ca. 1570), a theme he returned to multiple times throughout his career. This New Testament tale took on new symbolic significance during the intensifying religious fervor of the Counter Reformation; the story was used to underscore the attempted purification of the Catholic Church from heresy.

The painting’s bright colors, dramatic light, and emphasis on movement shows a strong influence from leading Venetian artists like Titian and Tintoretto. El Greco also decided to pay homage to the four contemporary artists he most revered then, depicting Titian, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Giulio Clovio (a prominent miniaturist and manuscript illuminator) in a tight huddle at the bottom right.

Despite his technical proficiency, El Greco faced professional failure in Rome, unable to obtain a single major commission. Keith Christiansen, chairman of the department of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, suggests that the disparaging remarks El Greco made about Michelangelo’s painting ability led to his own lack of work, causing potential patrons to doubt his taste and abilities. An outsider in Rome, El Greco’s criticism would have been tremendously tone-deaf; Michelangelo, called Il Divino—The Divine One—had only died in 1564, and remained unimpeachable.

In 1576, El Greco signed a contract in Rome to create altarpieces for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, Spain. By the next year, he was living there, seeking commissions from King Philip II, yet his hopes were quickly dashed. While the king seemed to like his first bid for royal patronage, his second offering, Martyrdom of Saint Maurice, completed for the church of El Escorial in 1582, displeased his patron. While he had aspired to live amongst the royal court in Madrid, this disappointment may have prompted El Greco’s permanent move to Toledo, which would remain his home for the rest of his life.

Though somewhat removed from the European centers of the art world, the Spanish city was an intellectual and religious center of the country. El Greco found a community of like-minded scholars and church reformers who appreciated his expressive work. It is in Toledo that El Greco honed his signature style, and it is the increasingly conceptual works he made during this period that speak most profoundly to modern tastes.

In 1600, El Greco returned to the narrative of Christ and the money-changers. Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple shows a similar scene to the Rome version, yet appears radically altered. Here, the apparent influence of Titian and Tintoretto has been greatly expounded upon: The colors are dissonant and acidic; the bodies more elongated in the Mannerist style, emotions twisted and intense. In this edition, fanciful architectural elements have been omitted to focus on the central figure of Jesus, who charges right at us. Notably, the four Renaissance masters have been left out: El Greco had found his own voice.

The artist established a large and productive workshop in Toledo, which almost exclusively created religious subjects and portraits. A View of Toledo (1599–1600) presents a rare example of his landscape painting, and is considered by some to be the first expressionist landscape in Western art. The dramatic composition takes a subjective, slightly melodramatic approach to landscape that prefigures paintings by Impressionists like Vincent van Gogh.

El Greco, Christ driving the Traders from the Temple, about 1600. Courtesy of The National Gallery, London.

El Greco’s psychologically compelling portraits also greatly inspired his successor, Diego Velázquez. The former’s St. Jerome as a Scholar (ca. 1610), for instance, elegantly combines the holy man’s asceticism and ambitious scholarly accomplishments. The sitter’s unusually elastic frame, a hallmark of El Greco’s aesthetic, manages to highlight both his seriousness and godliness.

It is El Greco’s visionary religious works, however, that most strongly seem to prefigure modern art. In an effort to embody a higher realm of the spirit, El Greco pushed his paintings’ mystical content, distorted and dematerialized figures, expressive effects of light and color, and monumental scale to greater extremes. Undulating nude bodies extend to the sky in the background of the metaphysical Vision of Saint John (ca. 1608–14). The gangly, titular saint, in a flowing electric blue robe, stretches out his arms, contorting his body into a shape resembling the cross. Unusually, there are no explicit religious symbols in this work: The absence of Catholic garb, gold halos, or books and eagles to signify John makes the vision itself—a moment of religious ecstasy—the true subject of the work.

Although he influenced generations of Spanish painters, from Velázquez to Picasso (who called him “a Venetian painter…but Cubist in construction”), El Greco does not truly belong to the lineage of the Spanish Renaissance. His workshop, though popular, yielded no school of art, and for almost 200 years after his death, many of his works were derided by critics for their perceived emotional and compositional indulgence (or, perhaps, the conservative establishment simply resented his freewheeling, intuitive approach). In the 19th century, Romantic artists resurrected an appreciation for his work, lauding its emphasis on individual expression and emotional extremity; modernists like van Gogh and Paul Gauguin fashioned themselves his artistic heirs.

Today, the artist is still closely associated with the Venetian artistic tradition, yet his approach to religious art retained a lifelong influence from the Byzantine icons of his youth. Such icons rejected realism in favor of straightforward, symbolic representation, and possessed a sacred function, attempting to embody the divine presence. Tellingly, throughout his life, the artist signed his works with his given Greek name, rather than an Italian or Spanish translation.

His paintings thus appear outside of time: El Greco embraced this ancient artistic tradition as he championed contemporary advancements and foreshadowed evolutions to come. It seems almost fitting that the artist spent years as an outsider in every city, from Italy to Spain, in which he lived. It is precisely his personal vision of art and looking that have made him an artist wholly beyond time and place—the passionate spirituality of his work endures.

Julia Fiore