This picture by El Greco and his workshop dates from the very end of his lifetime, about 1612–14. It repeats, with some variations (particularly the different placement of the ox and lamb), the artist’s majestic Adoration of the Shepherds in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, which is eight times larger (319 x 180 cm) and also dates from the last two or three years of his life. The Prado painting was made as the altarpiece for El Greco’s own funerary chapel in the Cistercian convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, Toledo, for which an agreement was signed by the artist and his son Jorge Manuel in 1612. It was for this same convent that, in 1577–79, El Greco had painted an enormous, multi-storied altarpiece (retablo) and two small lateral altarpieces during his first years in Spain. The death of El Greco’s longtime supporter Luis de Castilla in 1618 and a dispute between the nuns of Santo Domingo and El Greco’s son led to the family tomb being transferred to another church, San Torcuato, but the Adoration (or Nativity) was left behind, and finally sold to the Prado in 1954, though its frame, designed by El Greco, remains in the church (see Marías 2014, pp. 242–44, 249–53). Although the location of the New York version before 1908 is not known, it is worth noting that among the paintings in El Greco’s post mortem inventory were several Nativities. These appear, this time with dimensions, in a further inventory drawn up for Jorge Manel in 1621, and one of these (no. 11) measured one and a third varas high by two-thirds of a vara wide, which equals about 110 x 52 cm and thus could be the MMA picture. In this case the work was probably painted as stock, for sale to a future client.
It seems possible that, as observed by Xavier Bray (in El Greco, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, London, 2003, p. 216), the idea for the placement and attitude of the three figures closest to the Christ Child—the Virgin, Saint Joseph to the left, and the old shepherd kneeling in the foreground (like his counterpart in the Prado canvas, often said to resemble El Greco)—owe something to an engraving by Diego de Astor of 1605 that reversed the composition of the Adoration of the Shepherds, of about 1600–1605, in the Colegio del Patriarca, Valencia (see Additional Images, fig. 1). For example, the very tall angel behind the kneeling shepherd to the left in the Valencia picture anticipates the surprising stature and devout pose of the shepherd to the right in the Prado altarpiece and in the MMA’s version of it. In other respects, however, the Prado composition strongly modifies the Valencia design, stretching figures to extremes typical of El Greco’s last years, increasing the agitation of their poses and intensity of expression, and eliminating most indications of rational space, so that what remains seems overall—not only in the angelic group above—a vision of unearthly figures floating in an otherworldly space. Coherence is achieved through rhythms and resonance, of contours flowing and vivid colors echoing, and above all by the miraculous origin of light throughout in the tiny figure of the Christ Child.
These expressive effects are somewhat diminished in the replica, which is likely to have been painted in large part by the workshop. The figures of Saint Joseph to the left (now with a bound lamb placed in front of him) and the tall shepherd to the right are set deeper in space. The main figures are grouped more tightly together and the light on them is for the most part more descriptive, less spectacular; the angels and cherubs above are reduced in scale and thus seem deeper in space. The proportions of the Prado picture are just barely taller and yet the figures there seem to soar upward with distinctly more space to spare. To what extent this difference reflects the workshop process of making a replica or an assistant’s different sensibility is not clear.
The changes and, of course, the scale of the New York canvas may be considered more appropriate to contemplation in a private setting, the likely destination of such a reduced version. By contrast, the scale—over three meters, nearly ten and a half feet high—of the Prado painting was intended for the grand interior of Santo Domingo, where the work’s ecstatic style would convey the message of Salvation to a large religious community.
[Walter Liedtke 2014]
Inscription: Signed (lower left, in Greek): Domenikos Theotokopoulos / made this [largely illegible because of an old tear]
Marqués del Arco, Madrid (in 1908); ?[Durand-Ruel, Paris]; George Blumenthal, New York (by 1916–d. 1941; cat., vol. 1, 1926, pl. LIV)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Spanish Paintings from El Greco to Goya," February 17–April 1, 1928, no. 25 (lent by George Blumenthal).
Brooklyn Museum. "Exhibition of Spanish Painting," October 4–31, 1935, no. 31 (lent by George Blumenthal).
New York. M. Knoedler & Co. "El Greco Loan Exhibition," January 17–February 15, 1941, no. 12.
Toledo Museum of Art. March 9–April 13, 1947, no catalogue.
Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. "30 Masterpieces: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 4–November 23, 1947, unnumbered cat.
Iowa City. State University of Iowa, School of Fine Arts. "30 Masterpieces: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," January 9–March 31, 1948, unnumbered cat.
Bloomington. Indiana University. "30 Masterpieces: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art," April 18–May 16, 1948, no catalogue.
Louisville. J. B. Speed Art Museum. "Old Masters from the Metropolitan," December 1, 1948–January 23, 1949, no catalogue.
Madison. Memorial Union Gallery, University of Wisconsin. "Old Masters from the Metropolitan," February 15–March 30, 1949, unnumbered cat.
Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. "Old Masters from the Metropolitan," April 24–June 30, 1949, no catalogue.
Palm Beach. Society of the Four Arts. "European Masters of the XVII and XVIII Centuries," January 13–February 5, 1950, no. 22.
Utica, N.Y. Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute. "Picture of the Month," January 7–29, 1951, no catalogue.
Detroit Institute of Arts. "Thirty-Eight Great Paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 2–28, 1951, no catalogue.
Art Gallery of Toronto. "Thirty-Eight Great Paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," November 14–December 12, 1951, no catalogue.
City Art Museum of St. Louis. "Thirty-Eight Great Paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," January 6–February 4, 1952, no catalogue.
Seattle Art Museum. "Thirty-Eight Great Paintings from The Metropolitan Museum of Art," March 1–June 30, 1952, no catalogue.
Milwaukee Art Institute. "5 Centuries of Spanish Art," September 5–October 25, 1952, no. 10.
Syracuse, N.Y. Syracuse University. "Spanish Art: Fifteenth Century to Modern," November 10–December 1, 1952, no. 5.
Milwaukee Auditorium. "Metropolitan Art Museum $1,000,000 Masterpiece Exhibition," March 7–14, 1953, unnumbered cat. (p. 8).
Austin, Tex. City Coliseum. "Texas Fine Arts Festival: Metropolitan Museum $1,000,000 Collection of Old Masters," April 18–26, 1953, unnum. checklist.
Scottsdale. Arizona Art Association. "Paintings from the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art," February 22–March 21, 1954, no catalogue.
Buffalo, N.Y. Albright-Knox Art Gallery. "Paintings from the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art," April 15–June 2, 1954, unnumbered cat.
Southampton, N.Y. Parrish Art Museum. "Paintings from the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art," July 22–August 18, 1954, unnumbered cat.
Columbus, Ohio. Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts. "Masterpieces of Spanish Painting," October 8–November 14, 1954.
Delaware, Ohio. Ohio Wesleyen University. "Masterpieces of Spanish Painting," November 17–24, 1954, no catalogue.
Lynchburg, Va. Lynchburg Art Center. December 13, 1954–January 4, 1955, no catalogue.
Winnipeg Art Gallery. "El Greco to Goya," April 16–May 15, 1955, no. 1.
Decatur, Ga. Agnes Scott College. November 15–December 15, 1955, no catalogue.
New York. American Federation of the Arts. February 1–May 31, 1958, no catalogue.
Fort Wayne, Ind. Fort Wayne Art School and Museum. November 29, 1960–January 8, 1961, no catalogue.
Little Rock. Arkansas Arts Center. "Five Centuries of European Painting," May 16–October 26, 1963, unnumbered cat. (p. 19).
Memphis. Brooks Memorial Art Gallery. December 1, 1963–January 1, 1964, no catalogue.
Jacksonville, Fla. Cummer Gallery of Art. "700 Years of Spanish Art," October 28–November 30, 1965, no. 20.
Bordeaux. Galerie des Beaux-Arts. "Profil du Metropolitan Museum of Art de New York: de Ramsès à Picasso," May 15–September 1, 1981, no. 102.
San Diego Museum of Art. "5000 Years of Art from the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art," October 10–December 6, 1981, no. 47.
Champaign-Urbana. Krannert Art Museum, University of Illinois. "5000 Years of Art from the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art," January 10–March 7, 1982, no. 47.
Mobile, Ala. Fine Arts Museum of the South. "5000 Years of Art from the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art," March 30–May 9, 1982, no. 47.
Midland, Mich. Midland Center for the Arts. "5000 Years of Art from the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art," June 13–August 25, 1982, no. 47.
Little Rock. Arkansas Arts Center. "5000 Years of Art from the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 19–November 14, 1982, no. 47.
Athens. National Gallery Alexandros Soutzos Museum. "From El Greco to Cézanne: Masterpieces of European Painting from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York," December 13, 1992–April 11, 1993, no. 4.
Athens. Museum of Cycladic Art. "El Greco & su taller," October 16, 2007–January 6, 2008, no. 28.
National Museum of Art, Osaka. "El Greco's Visual Poetics," October 16–December 24, 2012, no. 34.
Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. "El Greco's Visual Poetics," January 19–April 7, 2013, no. 34.
Toledo. Museo de Santa Cruz. "The Greek of Toledo," March 14–June 14, 2014, no. 76.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "El Greco in New York," November 4, 2014–February 1, 2015, no catalogue.
Manuel B. Cossío. El Greco. Madrid, 1908, vol. 1, p. 565, no. 86, as in the collection of the Marqués del Arco, Madrid; dates it about 1594–1604; notes the similarity between this painting and the version from the altar in Santo Domingo el Antiguo, Toledo [now Museo del Prado, Madrid].
August L. Mayer. "Paintings by El Greco in America, Part Two." Art in America 4 (1916), pp. 311–17, ill., calls this picture "an artistic elaboration" of the version in The Royal Gallery, Bucharest; notes that the figure of the shepherd on the left derives from the "Feast in the House of Simon" [two versions, now The Art Institute of Chicago and Private Collection, Havana]; the angel with the ribbon derives from the Bucharest painting; both the angel with its back turned and the Virgin are repeated later in his unfinished Immaculate Conception, Nemes Collection (Budapest), and the Virgin also appears in the Annunciation in St. Nicholas, Toledo
Elizabeth du Gué Trapier. El Greco. New York, 1925, p. 156
Stella Rubinstein-Bloch. Catalogue of the Collection of George and Florence Blumenthal. Vol. 1, Paintings—Early Schools. Paris, 1926, unpaginated, pl. 54.
August L. Mayer. Dominico Theotocopuli, El Greco. Munich, 1926, pp. 4, 6–7, no. 21a, ill., as a somewhat later repetition of the picture in the attic of Santo Domingo El Antiguo, Toledo [now Prado, Madrid].
F. de B. San Román. "De la vida del Greco (Nueva serie de documentos inéditos)." Archivo español de arte y arqueología 3 (1927), p. 293, identifies it with no. 72 in Jorge Manuel's 1621 inventory, "un nazimiento, del mesmo alto i ancho [de bara y quarta de alto y tres quartas de ancho]" [about 44 1/4 x 24 3/4 in.].
M. Legendre and A. Hartmann. Domenikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco. Paris, 1937, pp. 118, 504, ill., as from his "last period–1594–1604".
30 Masterpieces: An Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., Dallas Museum of Art. Dallas, 1947, unpaginated, ill. (color, overall on cover and detail).
José Camón Aznar. Dominico Greco. Madrid, 1950, vol. 2, p. 1358–59, no. 57, fig. 571, disagrees with San Ramon's identification of this picture as no. 72 in Jorge Manuel's 1621 inventory and identifies it as no. 11, "Un nazimiento, de bara y terzia de alto y dos terzias de ancho" [about 48 x 24 in.].
Metropolitan Art Museum $1,000,000 Masterpiece Exhibition. Exh. cat., Milwaukee Auditorium. Milwaukee, 1953, p. 8, ill. p. 8 and installation view, states that it most closely resembles the version in Valencia and claims both are variants of the painting in the Prado; dates both our painting and the one from Valencia to "well after 1600".
El Greco to Goya. Exh. cat., Winnipeg Art Gallery. Winnipeg, 1955, p. 9, no. 1, pl. 1.
Harold E. Wethey. El Greco and His School. Princeton, 1962, vol. 2, pp. 26, 167, no. X–7, calls it Workshop of El Greco and dates it about 1612–14; classifies it as belonging to Type V, in which the composition of the Valencian painting is reversed with larger and more elongated figures.
Manuel B. Cossío. El Greco. Ed. Natalia Cossío de Jiménez. definitive ed. Barcelona, 1972, p. 357, no. 22, fig. 62, cites it as an intermediate work between (MMA 05.42) and the version in the Prado.
Katharine Baetjer. "El Greco." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 39 (Summer 1981), pp. 30–31, ill. (color).
Deborah Krohn et al. in From El Greco to Cézanne: Masterpieces of European Painting from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Exh. cat., National Gallery Alexandros Soutzos Museum. Athens, 1992, pp. 12, 306, no. 4, ill. (color) [catalogue section unpaginated], dates it about 1612–14; claims this is a smaller version of the painting in the Prado; suggests upper portion of the canvas with angels may have resembled the now missing section of "The Vision of Saint John" (MMA 56.48).
José Álvarez Lopera. El Greco: La obra esencial. [Madrid], , pp. 19, 294.
Fernando Marías. Greco: Biographie d'un peintre extravagant. Paris, 1997, p. 294, discusses it with three late versions of the subject; considers the earliest to be the painting executed for the Colegio de Doña Maria de Aragón (now Museo del Prado, Madrid), followed by the painting in Valencia; calls the MMA version the latest.
José Manuel Pita Andrade in El Greco: Identity and Transformation; Crete, Italy, Spain. Ed. José Álvarez Lopera. Exh. cat., Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Milan, 1999, pp. 157, 411, 422.
José Álvarez Lopera in El Greco & su taller. Ed. Nicos Hadjinicolaou. Exh. cat., Museum of Cycladic Art. Athens, 2007, pp. 276–77, 370–71, no. 28, ill. (color).
Fernando Marías in El Greco's Visual Poetics. Exh. cat., National Museum of Art, Osaka. [Tokyo], 2012, pp. 115, 240.
Yusuke Kawase in El Greco's Visual Poetics. Exh. cat., National Museum of Art, Osaka. [Tokyo], 2012, pp. 122–23, no. 34, ill. (color).