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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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El Greco became one of the most significant contributors to the Spanish Renaissance. His expressive style made him one of the most memorable artists from the 16th century and he achieved success in painting, sculpture and architecture.

It was El Greco's use of emotion within his work which laid the groundwork for many modern art movements, and his popularity can be considered almost universal. The artist took in many significant influences as his career progressed and his willingness to travel brought different styles to his attention. Whilst some of these would impact his technical methods, the artist's overall style was entirely unique, making most of his paintings instantly recognisable as his own. Religious themes and also portraiture would become the two dominant genres in his oeuvre, and he would eventually even master the disciplines of sculpture and architecture as well. El Greco is today generally regarded as a Spanish painter, even though he was Greek by birth, such was the impact that he made in the Spanish Renaissance, and the length of time that he spent living and working in the country. For all the work that he produced, he is probably most famous for the huge canvases with large numbers of expressive figures set within well known scenes from the Bible which appeared several times within his career.

The artist was known to be particularly religious himself and so was perfectly happy to fill his career with themes from the Bible. Most of the high paying commissions at that time within both Italy and Spain would require such content in any case, and so he was well placed to take advantage of this. As he travelled about the Mannerist approach started to appeal to him and he began to impact his emotions into the various depictions that he produced. Earlier periods have attempted to recreate nature and humanity, but now artists were attempting to deliver their own versions of that, complete with their own emotions instilled in each painting. This idea would develop in the next few centuries, eventually leading up to all of the modern art styles that we enjoy today, meaning the impact made by the Mannerist movement was particularly significant. Having been forgotten for several centuries, El Greco's paintings re-appeared in the minds of art historians around the 19th century and today he can be considered one of the most popular European artists from the 16th century.

The artist was also known for the way in which he would exaggerate certain aspects of his paintings. In the latter part of his career, for example, many of the figures in his artworks would be stretched, with elongated limbs which produced a dream-like atmosphere would which helped to connect us to some of the religious themes that he was focusing on. He would provide heavily contrasting colours in close promximity to each other which increased the drama within his works, which many have since compared to the great 20th German artists from the Expressionist movement. Indeed, many connections have been drawn between El Greco's work and styles found in the 19th and 20th century and it can be argued that his progressive ideas helped to bring about these later movements. It is a testament to his ingenuity and imagination that an artist could take subjects which had appeared within art for many centuries, and then re-invent them through his own unique artistic approach. El Greco was also somewhat rare as an artist who had lived and worked within both Italy and Spain, clearly merging ideas from both regions into his work.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Move to Italy
  3. Most Famous Paintings


El Greco, who was originally known as Doménikos Theotokópoulos, was born in Crete in 1541 and built a career which achieved in the fields of Painting, sculpture and architecture, with key paintings including El Espolio, The Assumption of the Virgin, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, View of Toledo, Opening of the Fifth Seal and The Agony in the Garden. This Greek painter was in his thirties when he started to paint some of his career highlights and View of Toledo is his best known of all, covering a stylish landscape painting that depicts the city where he spent many years up to his death in 1614.

Move to Italy

El Greco moved to Italy where he realised that his career could go up to a new level through exposure to other artists who were helping Italy at the time to lead the European art scene. Besides the artists around at that time, El Greco was also able to study those who had recently gone before as their techniques offered new ideas to the Greek painter and could be easily studied from within the major religious institutions across the country at that time, with museums and galleries just something that would later appear.

Most Famous Paintings

View of Toledo

View of Toledo, perhaps his finest artwork of all, is a highly innovative painting whose style was very unusual for the time, featuring a truly emotional scene that goes far beyond just the more realist artists who dominated the first centuries after the Middle Ages where the renaissance and baroque periods were in full flow. The most dramatic part of the painting is the aggressive sky which hangs threateningly over the cityscape of Toledo which itself is a charming city featuring some splendid, historic architecture.

Self Portrait

El Greco is believed to have painted the above self portrait of himself and it remains one of the few images of the artist himself, as is the way for most whose careers were as long ago as the 16th century when photography and media was relatively unheard of and an artist's reputation would struggle to cross geographical boundaries except in extreme cases. The approach of El Greco in adding more emotional elements to his paintings helped further encourage new art movements within later centuries such as Cubism and Expressionism which took the ideas of artists like El Greco and took them even further.

Christ Crucifixion

Christ Crucifixion depicts the world famous scene of Jesus on the Cross and is an impressively original version that takes advantage of the skills of El Greco to produce a version which is amongst the best of the many thousands which have been created across the western arts world since the Middle Ages.Previously to this, many other artists had used other techniques to recreate the same scene, with many art media that would never be seen today by 21st century artists.

Christ Crucifixion is just one of several exceptional christian-based paintings that can be found within his career, with other notable entries like Adoration of the Name of Jesus, Last Supper, Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple, Trinity, Pentecost, Resurrection and Assumption of the Virgin to name just a few. El Greco's entry into Italy was always likely to bring about an influx of religious paintings into his portfolio although naturally, as a Greek, El Greco was already very exposed to the importance of religion within art and general society at that time.

Adoration of the Name of Jesus

Adoration of the Name of Jesus can be seen above and this is one of the most elaborate and detailed painting by El Greco who spent a considerable amount of time in creating this masterpiece which focuses on both the real world and the heavens, capturing them together in this incredible work. There are around 30-40 figures included in Adoration of the Name of Jesus and it is there that would have taken the artist most of the time that he spent in the full completion of this painting.

El Greco's artistic style is generally classified as Mannerism and he is joined in this art movement by Tintoretto, Benvenuto Cellini, Jacopo da Pontormo, Rosso Fiorentino & the School of Fontainebleau, Agnolo Bronzino and Alessandro Allori. Mannerism came around the end of the Italian High Renaissance and El Greco was one of the later components of this style. Following on after the end of Mannerism was the Baroque periods which became better known, with Tintoretto and El Greco probably being the most famous painters involved in the Mannerist art movement.

Saint Paul

Saint Paul is another key work from the career of El Greco and you can see that above. El Greco was a skilled portrait painter though at this time portraits were most likely to be full-body rather than just head shots, particularly in the case of this painter who preferred the additional opportunities that were brought to any painting which included clothing and more complicated poses. The main point of interest in Saint Paul is the use of light that sits comfortably across the different swathes of the Saint's outfit.

Last Supper

Last Supper was a crucial moment in the life of Jesus Christ, as after this he was taken away, convicted and then brutally crucified. It therefore takes an important role within the belief structure of Christians and for this reason was a frequent choice for artists around this period, with Leonardo da Vinci having created the most famous version of all. El Greco's work is amongst the more subtle of those he created and has far duller colours than can be seen in most other paintings that can be seen in this website.