The hundreds of works that adorn the walls of museums are often just a small fragment of the wealth of works in their larger collections. This year, institutions the world over have a convenient excuse to dig through their archives for the works of Doménikos Theotokópoulos
—better known by his Spanish-Italian nickname, El Greco (“the Greek”)—to celebrate the painter’s legacy 400 years after his death. Three of New York City’s museums are taking part, with The Metropolitan Museum of Art
showing its own collection of 10 works along with six loans from the Hispanic Society of America, and the Frick Collection displaying all three of their works by El Greco together for the first time, rounding out the selection of 19 of the master’s paintings that can be seen—in the flesh—in New York this winter.
The range of works on view at the Met show the development of El Greco’s distinctive style, which broke through the orderly forms of the Renaissance
style, with its strict adherence to naturalistic representation. This is especially evident in the painter’s takes on the traditional portrait—from the formally framed Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara
(ca. 1600) to his own probable self-portrayal in Portrait of an Old Man
(1595-1600)—where his use of conventional composition makes his departures from the form all the more affecting. The colors in these portraits are enhanced to the point of eluding reality, with the resulting hues somehow both intensified and drained; the artist’s exaggerated human forms start to lose their consistency, almost coming apart at the edges. In his narrative scenes, multiple figures come together in settings whose dreamlike constructions are perhaps more easily comprehended in retrospect, through the lens of surrealism
. In his own lifetime, El Greco’s expressive style was hardly conceivable, and positioned him uniquely within the system of patronage—too unorthodox for a traditional position at the court, the painter settled in Toledo, where he received commissions from high church officials, academics, and other prominent, well-educated citizens of the city. His heightened sense of reality—as it is felt, not just seen—pushed him to the forefront of the effort to portray the intensifying religious fervor that developed in Counter-Reformation Europe.