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EL GRECO (1541-1614)


Who was El Greco?

The painter Doménikos Theotokópoulos, better known by his spanish name El Greco (‘The Greek’), is considered by many to be one of the greatest painters in the history of European art. Relatively little, however, is known about his personal history, particularly the first 25 years or so following his birth in 1541 in Crete. He apparently descended from a wealthy and socially prominent family and early in his career received training in the Byzantine style of painting. This style is concerned with religious expression and more specifically the impersonal presentation of church theology in artistic terms.

His Venetian citizenship (Crete was under the control of Venice) allowed El Greco at age 27 to begin the study of painting in Italy. He studied with Titian, who was considered one of the greatest painters of the time and El Greco adopted in his work the Venetian features of bright colours, movement, and dramatic light. For a short period of time, El Greco lived in Rome where he was exposed to the work of Michelangelo, Raphael and Parmigiano. These artists practiced the style of Mannerism, which valued the portrayal of the nude in complex and artificial poses. The figures often have elongated limbs, small heads, and stylized facial features, which can be seen in exaggerated form in El Greco’s later works.

For reasons that remain unclear, El Greco left Italy for Spain in the springtime of 1577 . One of the most accepted explanations for the move was Philip II’s project of building the monastery of San Lorenzo at El Escorial, near Madrid. Despite the rejection of his sole painting for the King and the lack of further royal commissions, his work was highly popular. It was praised by the church and frequently copied well into the seventeenth century.

In 1579, El Greco completed the first of two works that were commissioned for the church of Santo Domingo el Antigua in Toledo. The completion of the second work established a local reputation that would sustain El Greco for the rest of his life. At about the same time, the most recognizable feature of El Greco’s style emerged - the elongation of figures.

The “Burial of Count Orgaz” (1586-88; Santo Tomé, Toledo) shown to the left, is universally recognized as El Greco’s masterpiece. The picture commemorates the burial in 1323 of the Lord of Orgaz, a benefactor of the Church of Santo Tomé, when Saints Augustine and Stephen miraculously appeared and placed the deceased in his sepulcher. This vision is fabricated by an astonishing handling of brilliant colour and radiant light. El Greco’s Mannerist method is nowhere more clearly expressed than here, as the frontal plane is where all of the action takes place.

As his career progressed, the elongation of human figures in El Greco's work became more pronounced. This can be seen in his classic “St. Martin and the Beggar” shown below. His cultural blend of Greek, Italian, and Spanish, created a unique and inimitable style. After El Greco’s death in 1614, there were no followers who adopted his artistic style; his art was too individual and personal to be recreated.

 

Is El Greco's Unique Style Explained by Astigmatism?

It has been suggested that many painters including, Holbein, Cranach the elder, Botticelli, Titian, Modigliani, Sargent, and El Greco have suffered from astigmatism. This suggestion is based on the recogntion that astigmatism which induces unidirectional elongation in the perception of objects. For example, a cylindrical lens which is used to treat astigmatism, will cause an ellipse to be seen as a circle. Similarily viewing one of El Greco's paintings through a cylindrical lens in proper orientation and power, eliminates the distortions.

However, there are several arguments that contradict this theory. First, it has been noted that El Greco’s tendency for elongation is simply stylistic and can be traced back to both the Byzantine and Mannerist eras. Secondly, El Greco’s elongated distortions did not simply occur in one direction as would be expected with astigmatism; while most of his human bodies are stretched vertically, the fingers are stretched horizontally. Thirdly, in his most recognized work, The Burial of Count Orgaz (see above), the vertical disotortions are not uniform; there are normally proportioned figures as well as distorted ones. Fourth, El Greco’s distortions progressed over his career. However, with astigmatism normally the axis does not increase in severity with age. Fifth, while the axis of astigmatism normally changes with age from the vertical axis ("with-the-rule astigmatism") to the horizontal axis ("against-the-rule astigmatism") there was no indication of this change in El Greco's work. Lastly, and perhaps most conclusively, X-ray analyses of some of El Greco's works reveals that the underlying figures were painted in normal proportions.

Thus it is probably more reasonable to conclude that the distorted tendencies in El Greco’s works are attributed to a purposeful style and not a visual abnormality.


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