El Greco (Spanish for “the Greek”, real name Domenikos Theotokopoulos, 1541, Candia, Crete – April 7, 1614, Toledo, Spain) is a Spanish painter of Greek origin. He has been a popular and highly sought master during his lifetime, but he was buried in oblivion for as long as three centuries after his death. Due to his motley history, his pictures have absorbed the features of several powerful schools: Byzantine icon painting, Italian Renaissance and Mannerism, all dressed up in Spanish mysticism. After his “re-discovery”, the peculiar and poorly classifiable artworks of the Spanish Greek have been designated as origins of modernism; his works have come to be valued as highly as the recognized masterpieces of the Old Masters.
Creative features of the Spanish artist El Greco. His nature made him move from country to country, thus the painter took the features he liked most from each of the schools he faced. The calligraphic accuracy of Cretan painting, combined with the vivid colouring of Byzantine iconography, the mystical ecstasy of Catholic religious scenes and the art style of the Mannerists enabled Domenico to create his own unique recognizable style, which did not allow to classify El Greco as a follower of any specific art school.
In 1881, the director of the Prado Museum refused to include the paintings by El Greco into the collection, stating that “ridiculous images have nothing to do with true works of art.” A hundred years later, the Museum has dramatically changed its policy: they organized a separate room for the gallery of his works and seeked to redeem all available canvases by his hand. Nowadays, in Spain, Domenikos Theotokopoulos is revered as a national shrine; in Toledo, where he has spent most of his life, there is a museum in his name.
The winding road to Toledo
The date of his birth was determined on the grounds that he called his guests to celebrate his 60th anniversary in 1601. Thus, it is believed that the future eccentric art master was born in 1541 not far from the present capital of the Crete island, into the family of a tax collector. His elder brother was a customs officer, so they were not embarrassed financially. Domenikos was lucky: he was not forced to study dentistry or law, but they allowed him to develop his artistic bent. El Greco mastered the art craft in an icon-painting workshop. A document dated 1566 says that Domenikos Theotokopoulos is a master of miniatures and frescoes.
The Cretan was eager to learn more and more, so that after having mastered Byzantine icon painting, El Greco naturally focused on Italy, where the most advanced and enlightened masters of the time were creating their artwork. In Venice, the Cretan manner of the young artist was supplemented by knowledge of perspective and the recognizable Venetian colourway. The next short stop on his way was Rome. However, he did not stay there long because of the first big uproar: the wayward and self-assured Greek allegedly criticised “The Last Judgment” by Michelangelo. Italians could not forgive him his gaffe.
“Chip this fresco away, and I shall replace it with another one, decent and pious and no less well-painted than Michelangelo’s”, these imprudent words made the cocky painter go to Spain, where he finally settled and turned into El Greco – Spanish for “the Greek”. His new compatriots could hardly speak his full name, although he used the word Κρής – “the Cretan” – to sign his paintings.
El Greco’s Precedent
After an unsuccessful attempt to please Philip II and get the position of the court painter at the royal palace of El Escorial, El Greco settles in the Spanish city of Toledo. Here he finally hones his unique style, paints his best works and finally gains the deserved fame and honour, rather acidulated with scandalousness.
It was not about the birth of an illegitimate son Jorge Manuel born by a certain Jerónima de las Cuevas, as Spanish people could hardly be embarrassed with such a fact. It was not even about his flaunting life, although such an easy time wasn’t common among the painters, who were considered artisans here. He lived indeed on a grand scale: he rented a luxurious mansion of the Marquis de Villena (who was also considered a warlock, which made the house notorious), hired musicians to entertain his guests with music during dinner parties.
Such a luxury surely needed funds. He raised money from the legal proceedings he initiated every now and again. One of interesting facts is that in Spain, they usually didn’t stipulate the size of an artist’s fee in advance. Experts determined the fee upon completion of work. El Greco was never satisfied with the price they put on his paintings, and he sued the customers until he received some payment appropriate to his vision. And these ordeals were not in vain: the ambition of the outsider gave the local artists the right to contest their fees, referring to the El Greco’s precedent.
The Spanish painter was a daring man, however, he still remained a highly educated conversationalist, and the cream of the creams of the Toledo gentlefolks felt honoured to be on friendly terms with him. Throughout his life, he managed to accumulate a fine library in four languages, Greek, Latin, Italian, and Spanish, comprising the writings of Homer, Aristotle, Plutarch, Euripides, Petrarch, Vasari, books on optics and works of Renaissance figures.
The ruin, oblivion and rising from the ashes
Unfortunately, like many other creative personalities, El Greco did not know how to watch his money, which led to sad consequences. He fell into huge debts, and by 1611 he had accumulated a two-year debt for the rent of the castle. Along with the financial problems, he had decline in health, which urged him to buy a crypt at a local monastery well in advance.
Despite the disease and the twilight years (he attained the age of 73), he continued to work until his last breath. The death of the Spanish artist was symbolic and dramatic to match his works, full of religious mysticism. The bony hag took El Greco on April 7, at the Annunciation Day, while he was working on his last canvas depicting the Virgin. This painting was finished later by his son Jorge Manuel.
However, even the death did not become the final point in the series of his troubles. In the 19th century, the monastery keeping the remains of the master was destroyed to the ground, and the El Greco's grave with his ashes lay in ruins. On the other hand, just around this time he began to leave the oblivion shadow as a creator of the Renaissance. By the twentieth century, justice had triumphed, and the art style of the eccentric Cretan, mostly misunderstood and unaccepted by previous generations, finally enjoys merited recognition. Things came just according to the prophecy of one of his contemporaries, who wrote the epitaph, “The next centuries will admire his art, being unable to imitate him.”