The most unusual painter in 16th-century Europe, El Greco combined the strict Byzantine style of his homeland, Greece, with influences received during his studies in Venice and the medieval tradition of the country where he worked, Spain.
Domenicos Theotocopoulos, later called El Greco, the Greek, by the Spaniards, was born in Candia, on the island of Crete. Nothing is known of his parentage. He was trained as icon-maker in a monastery; he then went to Venice (soon after 1560), where Titian became his greatest mentor. El Greco, however, obtained very little influence from his master; but a certain influence of Bassano, Baroccio, Veronese, and Tintoretto could be felt but on the whole his works are very individual and distinct. In 1570, El Greco went by way of Parma (where he appreciated Correggio) to Rome, where he met Michelangelo. He criticized his Last Judgment severely, and offered to produce a better composition. But on the whole Michelangelo and the Central Italian Mannerists stimulated him. The works of his Italian period are very different in style: Christ Healing the Blind Man (1560s), The Annunciation (1570-1575), Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple (c.1570).
GRECO, EL, the name commonly given to Domenikos Theotokopoulos (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 5578, 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 connection 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 connection 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 Velázquez. 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 Jos 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 neighborhood. 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 coloring, increased towards the end of his life. As has been well said, Light with him was only used for emotional appeal, and as focussed or scattered at will. He was haughtily certain of the value of his own art, and was determined to paint in
Around 1576, the painter went to Spain. At first he was in the service of Philip II: The Dream of Philip II (1579). His Martyrdom of St. Maurice (1580) did not appeal to Philip, and the painter moved to Toledo in 1580, the old capital and then a major center of artistic, intellectual, and religious life in 16th-century Spain. He stayed in Toledo until his death.
In 1586, he painted his famous The Burial of Count Orgaz (c.1586) for the church of St. Thomé, the success of which brought him a great number of commissions from the Church, the decoration of the new church of St. Domingo el Antiguo among them. He also became a popular portraitist: Portrait of a Nobleman with His Hand on His Chest (c.1580). His painting style always gave rise to much discussion.
The life of proud and independent El Greco in Spain, who always signed his pictures by his Greek name, demanded constant self-assertion. He rented the palace of Marquis Viliena (present Museum of El Greco in Toledo), collected a valuable library, was very successful in law suites against the church administration. Very brave in Catholic Spain was his union with a young aristocrat Jeronima de las Cuevas, mother of his bastard son Jorjé Manuel, the future Spanish architect. ‘Man of eccentric habits and ideas, of tremendous determination, extraordinary reticence, and extreme devoutness’ he was valued and respected by the intellectuals of Toledo. El Greco was buried in the Church of St. Thomé.
El Greco did not have followers, and his art was forgotten for 300 years. The re-discovery of his painting was a sensation; he became one of the most popular masters of the past, his painting rosed the interest of collectors, artists, lovers of art and art historians. El Greco is now regarded as one of the most important representatives of European Mannerism.