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El Greco: out of time

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

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.

From 1570 to 1577, El Greco set up shop in Rome, where he encountered Michelangelo and Parmigianino. During this sojourn in Italy, he absorbed everything he could about the perspectival and compositional techniques pioneered during the Renaissance, and showed 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 show a strong influence from leading Venetian artists likeTintoretto.

Despite his technical proficiency, El Greco faced professional failure in Rome, unable to obtain a single major commission. In 1576, he signed moved to Toledo, Spain, 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.

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 Impressionistslike Vincent van Gogh.

It is El Greco’s visionary religious works, however, that most strongly seem to prefigure modern art. 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.

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 Gauguinfashioned 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. 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.


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