Domenikos Theotokopoulos, nicknamed El Greco (“The Greek” in Spanish) was a well-known, controversial, but sadly underappreciated painter, sculptor, and architect in his heyday. His penchant for tortured, elongated figures; surreal colors; and complex religious iconography were appreciated only during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, some five hundred years after his death. For more about El Greco, here are some facts:
1. Though he often painted figures and scenes from Roman Catholicism, El Greco and his family were Orthodox Greeks.
- In his birthplace of Crete, his birth name does not appear on any of the archived Catholic baptismal records.
- However, in his last will and testament, El Greco described himself as a “devout Catholic.”
2. Trained as an icon painter at the Cretan school, he was already considered a “master” at the age of twenty-two.
- An official document named El Greco as a “master” or “maestro” of the local painter’s guild on Crete.
- That meant he was a master of the guild and in charge of his own workshop.
3. El Greco lived under the shadow of many of the great painters in his youth.
- Eighty-year-old Titian became his teacher in Renaissance painting techniques when he moved to Rome from Crete.
- Michelangelo and Raphael had just died when El Greco moved to Rome. That did not stop him from stating how much he disliked Michelangelo, however, saying that the latter “was a good man, but he did not know how to paint.” Still, Michelangelo was one of El Greco’s influences.
4. His outspokenness and strong opinions made him enemies wherever he went.
- His dislike of Michelangelo’s style led him to make an offer Pope Pius V to paint over the Last Judgment on the Sistine’s Chapel’s ceiling with something more in keeping with the newer, stricter Catholic teachings. This led to El Greco’s ostracizing from the Roman art world and the savagery of local art critics.
- El Greco was happier in Toledo, where he spent the remainder of his life. However, a commission dispute over his work on five altars and the painting St. Ildefonso for the Hospital of Charity at Ilescas cost him any more commissions from major churches and cathedrals. He believed that he was not being paid what he was truly owed.
5. As a gifted portraitist, his most famous painting, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, features the faces of his contemporaries.
- The mourners who fill up the bottom half of the painting don the faces of poets, scholars, and religious persons who all respected him.
- El Greco himself features in the painting as one of the mourners.
6. Though considered too original to belong to any existing artistic movement, El Greco is also the precursor for Cubism and Expressionism.
- His works would later influence those of Cezanne and Picasso. Indeed, Cezanne is considered El Greco’s spiritual brother.
- El Greco also influenced non-painters such as the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and writer Nikos Kazantzakis.
In hindsight, El Greco was ahead of his time. He serves as an inspiration to artists who wish to reject the trends and techniques of their era, and pick and choose what their contemporaries would rather not work with. His boldness is now immortalized in the works he left behind.