Few artists among the Old Masters produced work as startlingly fresh to contemporary eyes as Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541–1614), a Greek transplant to the Iberian city of Toledo who’s better known by his Spanish nickname, El Greco.
Though he’s associated with Mannerist painting, which upended the equilibrium of Renaissance proportionality and illusionistic space, nothing quite compared to El Greco’s facture, whose brush marks, often broad and clearly visible, depicted attenuated figures that seemed to flicker like candles in the wind. He also tended to compress background and foreground, flattening his compositions into all-over schemes.
Moreover, he frequently abjured naturalistic color, imparting a bluish tint to flesh, for instance, while using fabric to introduce areas of bold hues whose highlights registered more like zig-zagging marks than as folds in cloth. It’s no surprise, then, to learn that while El Greco’s work puzzled some of his coevals, it had a huge impact on modern painters like Picasso.
El Greco’s idiosyncratic methods speak to the artistic traditions he absorbed to earn his singular place in the canon. He was born in Crete when it was a vassal state of Venice known as the Kingdom of Candia. Like all Cretan artists, he was trained in the Byzantine icon tradition, which featured otherworldly, elongated figuration and flat, gilded backdrops.
At 26 he left for Venice, where he encountered the work of Tintoretto, who was known as Il Furioso for his fast, bold brushwork. Moving then to Rome, where he crossed paths with the Mannerists, and finally to Spain, El Greco synthesized the styles of the Byzantine, Venetian, and Roman schools to produced paintings so ahead of their time, they wouldn’t be fully appreciated for 300 years.
You’ll see for yourself in our tour of El Greco masterpieces.