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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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The artist, sculptor and architect El Greco (The Greek) was born Doménikos Theotokópoulos in Crete in 1541.

He grew up in a prosperous family, his father being Georgios Theotokópoulos, a merchant and tax collector. Initially he trained as an icon painter in the Eastern orthodox tradition and a small number of paintings have been attributed to him during this Cretan period including Dormition of the Virgin, which is in the post-Byzantine style.

At that time Crete was a Venetian territory and by 1567 El Greco had moved to Venice to study Western style painting. He was enormously influenced there by Titian, who was already established as a great artist of the day. From him, he learnt his recognisable Mannerist style, which was characterised by a free drawing style filled with intense colours, and a foreshortened perspective.

In 1570, El Greco was commissioned to produce his Portrait of Giorgio Giulio Clovio. Clovio was a miniaturist, and was a friend to El Greco who recognised the depth of his talent. He provided a letter of recommendation to enable El Greco to move to Rome as the guest at the Palazzo Farnese. Alessandro Farnese was highly influential at that time, and his patronage enabled El Greco to become a part of the city's artistic heart. He studied and developed his expertise as a Renaissance artist, incorporating this style of painting figures, portraying perspective and depicting detailed narrative scenes in his works.

He opened a workshop in Rome in 1572 and produced a series of paintings which blended the Venetian style he had learnt with his own unique take on religious iconography. The influence of Titian is evident in his works from this period through their rich colours and atmospheric light, and he developed some more unusual characteristics in his works, including the elongated, twisted figures that became his trademark.

Whilst in Rome, he was able to mix with many of the most famous artists of the day but his determination to be distinctive led to him developing a new and inventive style. To this end he was keen to forego realism in the interests of emotional impact in his art. He was outspoken in his support for some artists and criticism of others, such as the late Michelangelo. Possibly for this reason, he did not secure the types of commission he had hoped for in Rome and so El Greco moved on to Spain in 1576 with the intention of obtaining royal commissions.

His initial attempt to win the royal patronage of Philip II of Spain was unsuccessful so he moved from Madrid to Toledo which was the religious capital of Spain at the time. There he developed his Mannerist style further, focusing on stylised intertwined figures, daring use of colour and contrast and interpretative approaches to religious art. This was in contrast to the Italian artists that he had left behind, who were moving back towards the more naturalist style. His approach is now seen as more modern and enjoys greater popularity today as a result.

He was keen to be involved in the building of Philip II's San Lorenzo monastery at El Escorial just outside Madrid. Numerous large paintings were needed and Philip was not able to find sufficient talented artists easily. Following the death of royal artist Juan Fernandez de Navarrete, El Greco drew on his Italian connections to gain a royal commission to produce The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice and The Allegory of the Holy League for El Escorial. However the king did not approve of the paintings, possibly due to their Mannerist style, and they were relegated to less important parts of the cathedral. There were no more royal commissions for El Greco.

In spite of this, El Greco secured numerous commissions for churches around Toledo and he made the city his home. He rented apartments from the Marquis de Villena and lived an affluent lifestyle. In 1578, El Greco’s only son, Jorge Manuel, was born to his companion Jeronima de las Cuevas. He also went on to become a painter, working alongside his father in later years and reproducing some of this works after his death.

In 1586, El Greco produced what is generally considered his greatest work, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz which was commissioned by the parish priest of Santo Tome in Toledo. This vision of heaven and earth exemplifies his unique artistic and imaginative style, which was unlike any of his contemporaries. El Greco was a prolific painter from the mid 1590s for the next fifteen years, being commissioned to create numerous religious paintings and sculptures.

The works included depictions of numerous saints, and he particularly favoured images of Saint Francis producing many images of this saint during his life. He received regular commissions from religious authorities at this time as the Catholic church was reforming and seeking iconography that reinforced the importance of the Virgin, the saints and the sacraments. El Greco’s style held the dramatic power to deliver this and he was highly sought after. His commission to produce three altarpieces for the church of Santo Domingo El Antiguo resulted in some of his most striking and ambitious works.

They demonstrate all the facets of the range of styles he had mastered, including brilliant pigmentation, strong contrasts and tortuous, elongated human forms. However there was a protracted legal dispute concerning the fee that was due for these altarpieces. This tarnished his future career and marked the end of his work for the religious authorities. It also resulted in economic pressures on him personally in his later years.

From that time onwards, his commissions were primarily from private individuals and churches and convents in Toledo. His style became more expressionist and its style more distorted, but throughout he retained the deep colour schemes that characterise his works, such as Agony in the Garden which was a painting he returned to and reworked several times. He took on complete commissions, encompassing both the sculptural surrounds and the paintings themselves, and is considered to be an accomplished architect as well as a sculptor and painter.

His portfolio focused on religious works throughout his life, but he also created a number of portraits, such as Jeronimo de Cevallos (1605-10) and Fray Felix Hortensio Paravicino (1609), in which he demonstrated his ability to portray not only the sitter’s physical likeness, but also their character. His stormy, moody work, View of Toledo (c1595), is believed to be the first landscape in Spanish art. In 1614 El Greco was working on a commission for the Hospital Tavera when he fell seriously ill and died suddenly on 7th April. Although he spent the majority of his life in Italy and Spain, he retained the nickname El Greco throughout and he emphasized his Greek heritage by signing most of his major works using his full Greek name.

Whilst El Greco’s works were largely criticised in the decades after his death, his talent started to become appreciated once more in the late 18th century. His eccentricity appealed to art critics and influenced future artists themselves, and by the turn of the twentieth century his impact on the art world had a resurgence. Artists from Cezanne to Picasso, Manet to Pollock cite El Greco as one of their influences and his effect on the world of modern art cannot be understated.