Biography: El Greco
He is regarded as one of the top figures in the contemporary canon of outstanding artists and a true visionary talent who lived far beyond his time.
El Greco is a crucial figure in the history of the Spanish Renaissance in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Due to his highly distinctive aesthetic, El Greco's works were initially viewed with skepticism and confusion. Still, today, he is regarded as one of the top figures in the contemporary canon of outstanding artists and a true visionary talent who lived far beyond his time. El Greco's portraits, landscapes, and other paintings gained widespread acclaim in the 19th century due to the efforts of numerous patrons, writers, and artists (particularly Romantic artists who valued his passionate eccentricities). However, it is frequently believed that his unique creative approach, which emphasized expressiveness, wasn't fully appreciated until the 20th century, when the creative environment of the time came to better understand his work. (2021)
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In the thriving Republic of Venice, on the Greek island of Crete, Doménikos Theotokópoulos was born in 1541. His early years are largely unknown, aside from the fact that he decided to pursue art at a very young age.
Theotokópoulos received his training as an icon painter in his hometown. Religious subjects were frequently portrayed in portraiture style in a static, devoted manner. The young artist had mastered this post-Byzantine style of art by the time he was 22 years old. He received a commission to paint alter pieces for the nearby Orthodox churches in the years after finishing his studies.
Although the exact date is a little hazy, it is thought that Theotokópoulos went to Venice when he was 26 years old to pursue his artistic goals, following in the footsteps of the artists who came before him. In Venice, surrounded by Byzantine and Italian Renaissance art, he discovered his needed wealth and inspiration. He began working in Titian's studio, home to one of the most renowned artists of the era. He studied Renaissance painting techniques, especially perspective and figural construction, to learn how to depict intricate narratives. However, his work was not well received because he was a young, foreign painter. (The Art Story, n.d.)
Theotokópoulos spent three years in Venice before relocating to Rome in 1570, where he resided in the palace quarters of a wealthy patron named Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. This position demonstrates his network and suggests that he was perhaps referred to it by a Venetian friend.
Theotokópoulos enrolled in the academy for painters and opened a studio with two trainees. Theotokópoulos expanded his artistic abilities and developed a distinctive style in Rome. He incorporated elements of the then-current Renaissance aesthetic and tried to set himself apart by offering fresh perspectives on conventionally religious themes. The Mannerists, who rejected the ideals of harmonious proportion, balance, static beauty, and naturalist presence, were where he discovered innovation. This led to the creation of works that combined the elegant framework of the Renaissance with the violent perspectives, strange altitudes, and wild gestures of the Mannerists, all through the lens of his prodigious imagination and expressive way of seeing the world.
His paintings were given an emotional, psychological, and spiritual pulse by the visual tension he was able to create through artificial distortion and unrealistic colors. Theotokópoulos had joined the Saint Luke Painters' Guild and appeared to be, in the words of art critic Jonathan Jones, "on the verge of a brilliant career in the city of the popes," but after six years in Rome, he still had not been given any commissions. This is probably because he publicly disparaged Michelangelo, who had passed away a few years prior and was still well-liked in Rome. According to popular belief, he asserted that he "could replace The Last Judgment with something just as good and more Christian." In 1577, he traveled to Spain due to his intense commitment to the growth and understanding of the arts.
He first traveled to Madrid before continuing to Toledo, a city with a rich history of commerce, religion, and the arts. Most people agree that his friends dubbed him El Greco, or "the Greek," during this time. But the name might also have come from his time in Italy, where it was common practice to refer to an artist by his country of origin. El Greco highlighted his proud heritage because he always signed his works of art with his full name in Greek letters.
Soon after his arrival, he discovered himself surrounded by generous patrons and intellectual friends. He also received two significant commissions for nearby churches, which helped him gain the artistic respect he desperately sought. The conversion of El Greco to Catholicism also takes place during this period of prolific creative output. His utter devotion to creation is evident when he states that he painted "because the spirits whisper madly inside my head," although other aspects of his personality are unknown.
El Greco was a profoundly spiritual man who lived in that spiritual world in addition to being a painter of religious subjects. This profoundly impacted his art because it forced him to redefine it as the manifestation of a higher spiritual realm, rejecting the idea that painting is merely the process of creating something that looks good. This enhanced his status as a leading modernist of his era.
El Greco is thought to have received a commission to paint for King Phillip V, the wealthiest and most powerful monarch in Europe at the time, at some point during his mature years. This would finally allow him to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a court painter. El Greco was forced to return to Toledo when he showed the King the paintings, who dismissed them and had a strong distaste for them.
Despite his opposition, El Greco remained committed to his vision and never altered his painting style. However, he was pleased to find the same recognition and validation when he returned to Toledo. El Greco is known to have worked as an architect and sculptor in Toledo, though little is known about these two artistic endeavors. (The Art Story, n.d.)
El Greco's initial success in Toledo enabled him to hire help and start his workshop, where he produced paintings, statues, and frames for altarpieces. As a result of his involvement in architecture, the church and monastery of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, for which he had created numerous paintings during his formative years in Toledo, were rebuilt. The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, now considered his most well-known work, was one of the many unique and magnificent pieces of art he produced after moving to the city that seemed to give him a new lease on life.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the artist experienced a fresh outpouring of inspiration; between 1597 and 1605, he created at least 11 significant paintings for different churches throughout Spain. El Greco's last work, the Adoration of the Shepherds, was completed to adorn his tomb, which is a fitting but slightly macabre conclusion. The artist successfully conveys a strong sense of light and hope from the newborn Christ by utilizing the dramatic contrast between light and shadow. (TheCollector, 2020)
The Legacy of El Greco
The Fifth Seal that influenced Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, frequently regarded as the first cubist painting, sparked much discussion. Picasso's development as a painter is only one thread of El Greco's influence. Numerous artists, including the cubists who came after Pablo Picasso, the German expressionists, and the abstract impressionists who came after them, were influenced by El Greco's contorted figures and bold, unreal colors, which are the very foundation of his work. His works also inspired people who did not paint, such as the poets Rainer Maria Rilke and Nikos Kazantzakis. He was unappreciated in his lifetime, and it took the art world 250 years to acknowledge his status as a master. (Biography, 2014)
art in context. (2021, October 15). artincontext.org. artincontext.org. https://artincontext.org/el-greco-paintings/
The Art Story. (n.d.). www.theartstory.org. Retrieved August 10, 2022, from https://www.theartstory.org/artist/el-greco/
Biography. (2014, April 2). www.biography.com. https://www.biography.com/artist/el-greco
TheCollector. (2020, April 24). www.thecollector.com. https://www.thecollector.com/el-greco-spanish-renaissance-painter/