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 or expressionism. 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.
Several pieces from the transformative early period that El Greco spent in Italy make their appearance in these New York exhibitions; the Met’s version of Christ Healing the Blind (1570) was probably painted in Rome, and shows the strong influence of Venetian painters like Titian and Tintoretto on El Greco’s early style. Its background shows a new depth of perspective, a move away from the flat, vibrant backgroundsof the Byzantine style that dominated the painter’s training in his youth on the island of Crete. The gesture of the blind man’s arm recalls the figure of Christ in the famous Pietà (1500) by Michelangelo—a painter whose legacy El Greco engaged with regularly, as can be seen in his own overtly titled Pietà (1575). The early date of this painting and El Greco’s apparent lack of anatomical precision suggest that he was still evolving what would later solidify as his highly particular style, but even in this period, his signature spiritual, almost ghastly color palette and the unnatural elongation of figures are evident.
The bulk of the works presented at the Met are from the later period of El Greco’s life, with several of his vibrant, almost mystical altarpieces displayed alongside quieter, more formal images of Catholic saints. El Greco’s unconventional depiction of the city in his seminal A View of Toledo (1598-99) exemplifies his break with the realistic, highly regimented iconography then in favor with the court. Rather than strictly portraying the city as it stood at the time, the painter combines the crowning architectural achievements of the medieval city with those of its Roman past, and imbues the scene with an otherworldly radiance that makes clear his own vibrant image of the city’s glorious present.
El Greco’s movement throughout Europe can be traced, but the question as to which country he belongs as an artist is more difficult to resolve. Though he helped to define the style of Spanish painting for centuries to come, his immersion in the Venetian tradition earned him a lifelong association with Italian style—as exemplified by the fact that he is still known by the nickname given him in Italy (the Spanish word for Greek is “Griego”). His relevance for modern artists rose considerably in the early 20th century thanks to the efforts of Ignacio Zuloaga, a Spanish painter who brought the attention of many modern artists to El Greco’s works, notably displaying The Vision of Saint John (1609-14) in his Paris apartment, where Picasso was among its regular viewers. Picasso affirmed the master’s work as a major influence, calling El Greco “a Venetian painter … but Cubist in construction.” Picasso’s own Le Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) was informed by the painting he saw so many times at Zuloaga’s home, and his characterization of “the Greek” as Italian in persuasion but Spanish in his legacy is quite fitting for a painter claimed, 400 years later, by three countries as one of their own.