The Artist El Greco

Born in 1541, the Crete-born painter known as El Greco became associated with the Spanish Renaissance and was famous for his painting, sculpture and even his architecture. Though the artist lived and worked for a time in Italy, he moved to Toledo, Spain in 1577 where he produced his most famous works including The Assumption of the Virgin (1577-1559) and Opening of the Fifth Seal (1608-1614).

Although El Greco was nicknamed for his Greek origin, his birthplace of Crete was actually annexed to the Republic of Venice. The artist’s birth name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos and scholars believe he was born in the village of Fodele or possibly Candia. Nothing is known of the artist’s mother or even his first wife, but his father was a prosperous merchant. His brother also became a successful merchant. El Greco learned to paint icons in Crete where he was also likely given a classical education. Scholars aren’t certain if the artist’s family was of Greek Orthodox faith, but later it was known that the artist practiced Roman Catholicism.

El Greco traveled to Venice in c.1567 to continue his artistic study. Little is known of his time there except that he found Titian most influential and remained there until 1570. Later that year the artist traveled to Rome where he was quick to dismiss the influence of Michelangelo and Raphael’s works, but found Correggio and Parmigianino particularly inspiring. Possibly due to his strong and unorthodox beliefs about the art of his day, El Greco did not find success in Rome. He left for Madrid in 1577 and soon after to Toledo where he would live until his death.

In Spain El Greco gained early notoriety for works such as El Espolio (1577-1579). He was able to paint large commissions for the Catholic Church as well as the monarchy. Philip II, however, was displeased—scholars are not sure why—with the commissions and did not seek out El Greco for additional works. However, with a growing reputation in the city, El Greco remained in Toledo and opened up a workshop. In 1586 he painted his masterpiece The Burial of Count Orgaz which is one of his most famous works today. It is not known if he married the mother of his son Jorge Manuel, but the child also grew up to become a painter and assisted his father in his workshop.

El Greco died in 1614 after becoming ill a month earlier. El Greco’s style challenged various elements of the classical style which was so popular during the Renaissance. He favored grace over aspects of measure and scale for example. This made his work distasteful to many during his lifetime. However, more modern art scholars acknowledge his ambition to create a more personal expression through his own sophisticated ideals. His later works have been described as dramatic. His art also embodies a style that exhibited considerable freedom as compared to other artists of the day. He also excelled at portraiture due to his ability to capture the character as well as the appearance of his subjects.