All aspects of the artist's activity are explored, from his beginnings as an icon painter in his native Crete, to his move to Venice and Rome and his study of Italian art, to his definitive move to Toledo, Spain, and his creation of a uniquely personal and deeply spiritual style. His work has sometimes been associated with the great mystics of Counter-Reformation Spain, but his paintings have had a profound influence on the protagonists of twentieth-century modernism, including Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock.
A unique synthesis of late medieval Byzantine traditions and the art of the Italian Renaissance, El Greco's art sought to create a new and spiritually more intense relationship between viewer and image. Although he established a large and productive workshop in Toledo, he founded no school, and for almost two centuries following his death his works were decried for their extravagance—except for his astonishing portraits, which Velázquez took as his model. A sympathetic interest in his art was the product of the nineteenth-century Romantic movement's new emphasis on individual expression and extremes of emotion. Since then El Greco's creative stature has never been challenged. Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin saw themselves as his artistic heirs. More recently, his works have inspired the expressive abstractions of generations of twentieth-century painters. The 1982 exhibition of his works was seen in Madrid, Washington, Toledo, Ohio, and Dallas.
The Dormition of the Virgin (Syros, Church of the Dormition) and St. Luke Painting the Virgin (Athens, Benaki Museum) are among the rare, early works documenting El Greco's first training as a painter of religious icons in his birthplace of Crete. The archaizing abstractions of these images—based on late medieval prototypes—reflect his country's continuing reverence for the Byzantine traditions of its Greek heritage. The style and sacred function of Byzantine icons, which rejected mimesis in favor of an attempt to mystically embody the living presence of the divine, greatly shaped El Greco's approach to religious art. Throughout his career, he always signed his works with his Greek name, Domenikos Theotokopoulos.
A number of key works featured in the exhibition illustrate the transforming effects of El Greco's stay in Italy, beginning with his arrival in Venice, in 1567, and his subsequent stay in Rome, from 1570 until 1577. The Purification of the Temple (ca. 1570, Minneapolis Institute of Arts), with its deep, stage-like space, bold brushwork, and dramatic lighting, shows the powerful influence of Titian as well as the Venetian mannerist Tintoretto. During the Counter Reformation the theme, reprised several times by El Greco, was interpreted as the purification of the Church.
Works from the artist's sojourn in Rome display El Greco's study of the art of Michelangelo and his awareness of Italian art theory. He became a member of a small circle of antiquarians. A Boy Blowing on an Ember to Light a Candle (Soplón) (Museo Nazionale di Capodimente, Naples) is a rare and charming example of El Greco's excursion into genre painting as well as an emulation of a celebrated lost work of ancient art.
In 1577 El Greco traveled to Spain, where he hoped to find royal patronage—unsuccessfully, as it turned out. Instead, he settled permanently in Toledo, still an intellectual and religious center of the country. Once again, he found his place among a circle of scholars and church reformers who appreciated his signature style, with its elongated, undulating forms and sometimes dissonant colors.
The Adoration of the Name of Jesus was among the first works painted by El Greco in Spain—perhaps an attempt to attract the attention of Philip II, who is shown kneeling in the foreground. The artist painted two versions of this religious allegory, which were shown together for the first time. Although the larger of the two versions found a place in Philip II's grandiose palace, the Escorial, El Greco did not become one of the king's artists.
The increasingly ethereal and otherworldly quality of his religious works can be traced in a series of important canvases from the 1580s and 1590s, including The Crucifixion with Two Donors (ca. 1585–90, Musée du Louvre, Paris); The Agony in the Garden (The Toledo Museum of Art); Virgin and Child with Saints Martina (or Thecla?) and Agnes and Saint Martin and the Beggar (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); and The Resurrection (Museo del Prado, Madrid).
In the Resurrection (ca. 1597–1604, Museo del Prado), one of El Greco's most celebrated works, expressive distortion and mystical drama are taken to unprecedented extremes. Emerging from the tomb with an almost explosive force, Christ acts as a magnet, pulling the figures below, drawn out to impossible lengths, heavenward.
El Greco's artistic explorations of spirituality and mysticism culminate in Adoration of the Shepherds (1614, Museo del Prado), designed to hang above the artist's tomb. Here, the body of the infant Christ, tiny on the 10-foot-tall canvas, emits an incandescent glow that illuminates the entire composition. Heavenly as well as earthly worshippers appear to be weightless, slowly spiraling in adoration around his form. The painting is an unrivaled example of El Greco's visual expression of ecstatic union with the divine.
The exhibition brings together El Greco's finest portraits, notable for their probing explorations of character and psychological intensity. Among the most famous is A Cardinal (probably Cardinal Niño de Guevara) (ca. 1600), whose piercing gaze suggests the stern rectitude with which he carried out his duties. The exhibition also includes El Greco's compelling portrayal of the young friar Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino (1609, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). A noted poet and professor of rhetoric, he was one of El Greco's admirers in Toledo and dedicated four poems to the artist.
Among the rare examples of El Greco's activities as a landscape painter is his famous View of Toledo (1600–1610), which is featured in the exhibition. The painting is sometimes considered the first expressionist landscape in Western art.
Also on view is The Laocoön (ca. 1600–1610, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), a late work in which El Greco openly vied with the celebrated first-century sculpture in the Vatican signed by Hagesandros, Polydoros, and Athenodoros of Rhodes. The subject, taken from Virgil's Aeneid, concerns the gods' punishment of the Trojan priest Laocoön in front of the walls of Troy, which El Greco shows as Toledo. The writhing forms and expressions of despair and physical pain make it one of his most powerful works.