El Greco in New York: The Met’s 400th Anniversary Celebration

Sandra Bertrand


It’s hard to believe that the Old Master painter Domenikos Theotokopoulos, born in Crete in 1541, known the world over by schoolchildren and art lovers today as El Greco (the “Greek”)—revered by artists ranging from Delacroix to Picasso—was for over 200 years considered in the words of Aldous Huxley, “a lunatic” and all but forgotten.  If, paradoxically, his style was too impassioned and spiritual for those secular thinkers of the Enlightenment, somewhere around the mid-19th century, the world woke up and rediscovered his genius.  Now, thanks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s visionary new exhibition commemorating the 400th year of El Greco’s death, we can let the party begin.


The Met’s own collection of El Greco’s religious paintings, portraits, and the incomparable rare landscape of the artist’s, The View of Toledo, is the finest outside of the Prado’s in Madrid.  Added to this, the generous loans of six other works from the Hispanic Society of America make this a special treat for the viewer. (Concurrently, three El Greco pictures which cannot be removed, are on view at The Frick Collection.) The comprehensive display can be seen in one room and if at first, it may not seem expansive enough for the jaded gallery-hopper, it is truly an embarrassment of riches.  From El Greco’s 1567 arrival in Venice, his subsequent move to Rome to his final 37-year residence in Toledo, Spain, his development and ultimate mastery of an iconic and totally original style is well represented.


Upon first entering, it’s impossible not to be drawn to the artist’s depiction of his beloved “Holy City” of Toledo.  The View of Toledo is no ordinary landscape of hills, bridges and gullies. With  the city’s church spires and palaces beckoning in the distance, it’s a turbulent transformation of unbelievable power.  Here is a painter of contrasts, at the top of his form.  The tension is created through the varying hues of electric greens and blues, the zigzag of dips and rises that everywhere meet the eye, while overhead the thunderous encroachment of clouds threaten to all but eclipse the scene below.  This masterwork and the portrait of Cardinal Fernando Nino de Guevara were gifts of Henry and Louisine Havemeyer, known as great American collectors of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art.



The portrait of Nino de Guevara, who was appointed Inquisitor General of Span by Philip III, is a cold, uncompromising portrait of a man who surely inspired terror in the heart of many.  His red cardinal’s robes in bold brush strokes reminiscent of the later modernist painters do not detract from the unsympathetic gaze of the man. Even after El Greco’s rejection by Philip II and his move away from the celebrated centers of culture, the painter garnered the occasional favor of many dignitaries as well as producing a bulk of alterpieces for monasteries, parish churches and chapels.  Miniature portraits were made for private clients, and his ability to individualize the sitter was almost uncanny.  These could be self-revelatory as well, as in Portrait of an Old Man.  Not unlike Rembrandt’s own brilliance at capturing soulfulness in a self-portrait, the subject greets the onlooker with a naked truth.  This portrait, though disputed in some circles as that of El Greco himself, appears on the one-peseta stamp as a self-portrait in the Spanish post office.


Before his own exaggerated, elongated style took hold, El Greco’s mentorship in Venice under Titian showed exploration of character was all encompassing ambition.  Veronese and Tintoretto also came under his careful gaze.  The shiftiness in a glance, the pose of a hand was a giveaway to the inner psyche. The Adoration of the Shepherds exhibits a somberness that could be attributed to his studies in Rome and the prevailing interest in Caravaggio’s darker works. His portraits of saints were just as moodily enigmatic, suggesting a spirituality that went beyond the quiet devotional nature in tone that was more common to his times.  Saint Jerome was a favorite subject for the artist and his clients, in no small part because of his role as a scholar, devoting his later years to self-denial in the Syrian desert, translating the Bible into Latin.  Saint Jerome as a Penitent, one of the Hispanic Society’s most impressive loans, shows another side—a long suffering saint, his books set aside for another more ascetic contemplation.


Perhaps the mainstay of this exhibition, rivaling View of Toledo for our attention, is The Vision of Saint John.  It is a quintessential example of El Greco’s late, expressionist style but was never delivered to the hospital that commissioned it.  Originally done as an altarpiece, it represents the apostle’s vision from the Book of Revelation, with an ensemble of naked martyrs ascending toward heaven, the lower half of the canvas supposedly alluding to profane love.  It’s a hypnotic piece with its whirling fragments of clouds, its cast of martyrs like ghost apparitions—the distortions of their forms lit as if from within, and a palette of primary colors with the boldest brush strokes.


Its significance to modernist painting cannot be understated.  Rediscovered in the late 1800s, it was purchased by a certain Ignacio Zuloaga in 1905 to display in his Paris studio.  It was there that it is believed Picasso laid eyes on it, subsequently inspired to paint his own masterpiece of a brothel scene, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907.  Enamored by the Spanish master, Picasso even referred to him as the “father of Cubism.”



At the preview showing Keith Christiansen, the chief organizer of the exhibit, was forthcoming about the number of El Greco’s contemporaries who denounced the artist as a “lunatic, against naturalism, during the entire period of the 18th century.”  Fernando Marias, who wrote the Prado’s gallery guide on the painter, didn’t mince words either:  “El Greco enjoyed life and he left behind the reputation of a man who was eccentric, peculiar, and paradoxical on account of his theoretical ideas and his highly personal and immediately recognizable style.”


Unquestionably, El Greco was his own man.  It is important to remember he was an outsider, no matter how many commissions he might have enjoyed.  To some degree the Byzantine influences of his youth—the mysticism and religious fervor of the Greek orthodox faith could not have been lost on him.  The vivid pallet and exaggerated forms associated with his style are not so removed from the very nature of Byzantine art.  Though his parents were presumably Roman Catholic along with the overriding power of the Italian Renaissance movement calling to him in his nascent artistic ambitions, he was quintessentially Greek by nature.  When the French Romantics made their own discoveries regarding his genius, accepting that such a spiritual imagination and insistence on a personal style matched their own, his reputation was once more secured.  Impressionist Claude Manet, making a trip to Spain in 1865, was so impressed by Velazquez as the painter’s painter—a view shared by many of his contemporaries—that a reappraisal of El Greco quickly followed. 



The late 19th century Spaniards made their own assessment of him, relating his brand of artistic spirituality on a par with St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.  In our own times, the celebrated writer Nikos Kazantzakis (Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ) created his own paean to the painter with Report to Greco, which stands as a profound exploration into the man as god-seeker and artist.


The insistence on an individual style is a given for almost any creative artist today—schools come and go with their own impassioned adherents—but such innovation in a world 400 years prior to our own is a singular achievement.  We can be thankful that the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Hispanic Society and the Frick have insured that we don’t easily forget again what true genius looks like. 


(El Greco in New York is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 1, 2015.)


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine's chief art critic.

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