A Boy Blowing on an Ember to Light a Candle (El Soplón) El Greco Buy Art Prints Now
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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 Soplón or Boy Blowing on an Ember is a relatively piece by Greek artist, El Greco. The painting features an aggressive use of lighting which became common during the 16th and 17th century, though within that the artist forged his own unique approach.

This piece can today be found in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples and has changed hands several times since the artist completed it in around 1571-1572. He lived and worked in Italy for a number of years and this time left a strong influence on his work, particularly in the early years after leaving for Spain in 1577. He concentrated most on religious themes within his career but there were also many portraits as well, some of which were commissioned pieces, whilst others were more for personal enjoyment and as means of developing his technical skills. Most of his portraits would be single figures, such as this one, but Boy Blowing on an Ember is noticeable for how it avoids the traditional compositional style where subjects sit purposely to be painted. Here we find some activity and is feels more natural in style. There is also an intimate atmosphere thanks to the heavy contrast in lighting between the foreground and everything behind the boy.

In line with the simpler content in this piece, as compared to his monumental religious pieces, the artist chose to use a reduced size canvas for this painting, sized at around half a metre in height and width. It could therefore be bought and hung by anyone, helping to broaden the artist's appeal. He would use oils for this piece but did work with tempera in the earlier part of his career, which would have been due to his time living in Italy. Eventually oils would take over and be the preference for most major artist, taking these techniques from the Northern Renaissance and artists such as Jan van Eyck.

The scene captures a boy preparing to light a candle by first blowing an ember, completing what was probably a daily task. He would hold a candle in his right hand and slowing move it towards the flame. There is even the start of melting wax, for those able to view this piece up close. The boy also puckers his lips as he blows upon the ember. This whole painting feels fun and may have attracted a different type of patron to his work, helping to broaden the scope of commissions that he received as his career took off. Eventually El Greco would have to employ assistants in order to help him keep up with a growing number of requests. He even got his own son involved eventually, who was skilled to a high technical level and able to contribute to a good number of works later in his father's life.