Greco at the Grand Palais, Paris

Dominikos Theotokopoulos (known as El Greco) was born in Crete, in Heraklion, in 1541. This Greek island has been under the rule of the Republic of Venice since the 13th century and is an important crossroads for trade in the Mediterranean. Nevertheless, when you are a painter in Crete, you are trained in the Byzantine tradition. This is the case of El Greco, who began by being a painter of icons while taking advantage of the island’s cosmopolitanism to open up to the modernity of Renaissance works, which he achieved through engraving.

Saint Luke painting the Virgin, 1560/66, Tempera and gold on canvas mounted on wood, Athens, Benaki museum

We find the elements of the Byzantine tradition (gold background, colour coding, characters in front or strictly in profile) to which Greco mixes Western influences with an attempt to render the depth and translate the volume of the body.

Michel Damaskinos, Saint Luke painting the Virgin, XVIth century

Dreaming of the great masters of the Italian Renaissance, Greco decided to go to Venice in 1567. There he discovered his models Titian, Tintoretto and Bassano. There he learns the pictorial grammar of the Renaissance and the taste for colours specific to Venice. The triptych of Modena testifies to this evolution.

Triptych of Modena (recto), 1567/69, Tempera on wood, Modena, Galleria Estense

It’s a portable altar for private orations. It represents, on the front, from left to right, the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Last Judgement with the allegory of the Christian Knight and the Baptism of Christ. On the reverse: the Annunciation, Mount Sinai with Moses receiving the tables of the Law and Adam and Eve driven out of Paradise. There is an impression of great liveliness in the composition, accentuated by an extraordinary unrealism of colours (especially the bright orange sky). The painter has incorporated the marks of Italian Renaissance painting: modelling of bodies, use of light and suggestion of space.

Triptych of Modena (verso)

The painting market being very competitive in Venice, Greco does not succeed in making a place for himself and decides to go to Rome where he confronts Michelangelo’s art. Ignorant of the fresco technique, he then had access to the market of small devotional paintings for private clients.

Pietà, 1570/75, Oil on wood, 29×20 cm, Philadelphia, Philadelphia Museum of Art

The pyramid-shaped composition and the contorted body of Christ are borrowed from the group of the Pieta carved by Michelangelo for his tomb

Michel-Ange, Pietà Bandini, 1547/55, marble, Florence, Duomo Museum
Christ chasing merchants out of the Temple, 1570, Oil on wood, 65×83 cm, Washington, National Gallery of Art

Greco now masters anatomy, movement, colour, the interplay between natural and artificial light and perspective. The influence of Venice can still be seen in this painting with a classical architectural setting reminiscent of Tintoretto and Veronese.

Tintoret, The foot washing, 1547, Oil on canvas, Madrid, Prado Museum

The course of the exhibition proposes to focus on El Greco’s activity as a portraitist, which he pursued throughout his career, producing numerous portraits of great sobriety combined with tremendous psychological intensity.

Portait of Hortensio Paravicino, 1609/11, Oil on canvas, 112×86 cm, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts

This portrait is both very sober (neutral background, limited chromatic range, poses facing the viewer) and, at the same time, lively thanks to the play of folds and an ample brushstroke touch.

Christ on the cross and two donors, 1595, Oil on canvas, 260×171 cm, Paris, musée du Louvre

The tormented style typical of the painter (stormy skies, twisting and stretching of the bodies, ecstatic faces) is tempered by a very symmetrical composition and a range of austere colours.

Speaking little Italian, not knowing the technique of fresco, Greco does not find his place in Rome any more than in Venice. A Spanish friend then offered him support from King Philip II in Spain, who was looking for painters for the construction site of the monastery of El Escorial. Thus the artist settled in Toledo in 1576. The following year, he signed his first two contracts to decorate the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo and the sacristy of the cathedral of Toledo. They finally allowed him to gain recognition for his art and to receive a commission from Philip II for El Escorial, « The Adoration of the Name of Jesus.

Sharing the tunic of Christ, 1580/85, Oil on canvas, 165×99 cm, Munich, Alte Pinakothek

The title may not be entirely accurate, for rather than the sharing of the tunic of Jesus by soldiers playing dice (which is not shown on the canvas), it is rather the stripping of His tunic by the executioner before the torture. But this is only my opinion. On this large painting, the accumulation of figures removes almost all depth, the colors are violent and the bodies stretched out in length. I particularly like the virtuosity with which Greco makes the red tunic of Christ reflect on the armour of the man standing beside him

Assumption of the Virgin, 1577/79, Oil on canvas, 403×211 cm, Chicago, The Art Institute

The composition in two registers is inspired by the Assumption painted by Titian for the Church of the Frari in Venice. The refined colours stand out against a light background, the monumentality of the figures and the absence of any superfluous details make it a work of great readability.

Titien, The Assumption of the Virgin, 1516, Venise, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari
The adoration of the name of Jesus, 1579/82, Oil on canvas, 140×109 cm, Madrid, Escorial

Greco remained in Toledo until his death in 1614, quickly becoming part of the local humanist circle. There he received numerous commissions for paintings for various religious institutions, portraits but also some mythological subjects and landscapes.

Saint Martin and the poor, 1597/98, Oil on canvas, 193×1103 cm, Whashington, National Gallery of Art

Greco transposes a scene supposed to take place in the fourth century to his own time. The young horseman is dressed in 16th century armour. The wonderful view of Toledo in the background is worth noting. I like Greco’s impression of imprecision, even sketchiness, when you see the work as a whole, which contrasts with the precision of certain details.

Maria Magdalena, 1584, Oil on canvas, 108×101 cm, Worcester, Art Museum
Christ at Gethsemane, 1590, Oil on canvas, Tolède, Museum of Art
« La Fable », 1585, Oil on canvas, Leeds

Possible allegory of carnal desire, this painting could also be inspired by the Natural History of Pliny the Elder. Notice the interest in the wonderful effects of light and in the monkey’s head, almost more « human » than those of his two companions.

The opening of the seventh seal, 1610/14, Oil on canvas, 22×193 cm, New-York, The Metropolitan Museum

These are just a few of the masterpieces in the magnificent exhibition organised by the Grand Palais, which retraces the career of a god of painting in a clear and didactic way.

Greco exhibition at the Grand Palais until February 10, 2020

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