26885571911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 12 — Greco, ElGeorge Charles Williamson

GRECO, EL, the name commonly given to Dominico Theotocopuli (d. 1614), Cretan painter, architect and sculptor. He was born in Crete, between 1545 and 1550, and announces his Cretan origin by his signature in Greek letters on his most important pictures, especially on the “St Maurice” in the Escorial. He appears to have studied art first of all in Venice, and on arriving in Rome in 1570 is described as having been a pupil of Titian, in a letter written by the miniaturist, Giulio Clovio, addressed to Cardinal Alessandro Farnesi, dated the 15th of November 1570.

Although a student under Titian, he was at no time an exponent of his master’s spirit, and his early historical pictures were attributed to many other artists, but never to Titian. Of his early works, two pictures of “The Healing of the Blind Man” at Dresden and Palma, and the four of “Christ driving the money-changers out of the Temple” in the Yarborough collection, the Cork collection, the National Gallery, and the Beruete collection at Madrid, are the chief. His first authentic portrait is that of his fellow-countryman, Giulio Clovio. It was painted between 1570 and 1578, is signed in Greek characters, and preserved at Naples, and the last portrait he painted under the influence of the Italian school appears to be that of a cardinal now in the National Gallery, of which four replicas painted in Spain are known. He appears to have come to Spain in 1577, but, on being questioned two years later in connexion with a judicial suit, as to when he arrived in the country, and for what purpose he came, declined to give any information. He was probably attracted by the prospect of participating in the decoration of the Escorial, and he appears to have settled down in Toledo, where his first works were the paintings for the high altar of Santo Domingo, and his famous picture of “The Disrobing of Christ” in the sacristy of the cathedral. It was in connexion with this last-named work that he proved refractory, and the records of a law-suit respecting the price to be paid to him give us the earliest information of the artist’s sojourn in Spain. In 1590, he painted the “History of St Maurice” for Philip II., and in 1578, his masterpiece, entitled “The Burial of the Count Orgaz.” This magnificent picture, one of the finest in Spain, is at last being appreciated, and can only be put a little below the masterpieces of Velazquez. It is a strangely individual work, representing Spanish character even more truthfully than did any Spanish artist, and it gathers up all the fugitive moods, the grace and charm, the devices and defects of a single race, and gives them complete stability in their wavering expressions.

Between 1595 and 1600, El Greco executed two groups of paintings in the church of San José at Toledo, and in the hospital of La Caridad, at Illescas. Besides these, he is known to have painted thirty-two portraits, several manuscripts, and many paintings for altar-pieces in Toledo and the neighbourhood. As an architect he was responsible for more than one of the churches of Toledo, and as a sculptor for carvings both in wood and in marble, and he can only be properly understood in all his varied excellences after a visit to the city where most of his work was executed.

He died on the 7th of April 1614, and the date of his death is one of the very few certain facts which we have respecting him. The record informs us that he made no will, that he received the sacraments, and was buried in the church of Santo Domingo. The popular legend of his having gone mad towards the latter part of his career has no foundation in fact, but his painting became more and more eccentric as his life went on, and his natural perversity and love of strange, cold colouring, increased towards the end of his life. As has been well said, “Light with him was only used for emotional appeal, and was focussed or scattered at will.” He was haughtily certain of the value of his own art, and was determined to paint in cold, ashen colouring, with livid, startling effect, the gaunt and extraordinary figures that he beheld with his eccentric genius. His pictures have wonderful visionary quality, admirable invention, and are full of passionate fervency. They may be considered extravagant, but are never commonplace, and are exceedingly attractive in their intense emotion, marvellous sincerity, and strange, chilly colour.

El Greco’s work is typically modern, and from it the portrait-painter, J. S. Sargent, claims to have learnt more than from that of any other artist. It immortalizes the character of the people amongst whom he dwelt, and he may be considered as the initiator of truth and realism in art, a precursor and inspirer of Velazquez.

In his own time he was exceedingly popular, and held in great repute. Sonnets were written in his honour, and he is himself said to have written several treatises, but these have not come down to our time. For more than a generation his work was hardly known, but it is now gaining rapidly in importance, and its true position is more and more recognized. Some examples of the artist’s own handwriting have been discovered in Toledo, and Señor Don Manuel Cossia of Madrid has spent many years collecting information for a work dealing with the artist. (G. C. W.)