Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541-1614), called El Greco, was born on the Greek island of Crete. He moved to Venice in his late twenties, where he was influenced by the paintings of Titian and Tintoretto. In Rome he saw the work of Michelangelo. It was from Italy that El Greco’s painting took on the characteristics of Mannerism—elongated figures, extravagant poses, compression of space, style for its own sake, and a rejection of naturalism. El Greco moved to Spain in 1576, eventually settling in Toledo.
Many of El Greco’s paintings were commissions for the Catholic Church and installed as altarpieces in chapels. Their compelling religiosity reflects the intensity of the Counter-Reformation. His paintings of saints and religious scenes, dramatically portrayed in vivid colors and expressive poses, were exactly suited to further the Church’s cause.
All seven El Greco paintings owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, along with a few other artworks, can now be seen together in a compact exhibition commemorating the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death. Similar anniversary exhibitions have also just opened at the Frick Collection and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Though small, this anniversary exhibition is superb. The National Gallery’s seven paintings are augmented by DC–area El Greco paintings from Dumbarton Oaks, the Phillips Collection and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. And despite its size, the National Gallery show is diverse, including “Christ Cleansing the Temple,” painted during the artist’s early career in Venice. Until just a few weeks ago, this and three other works here were part of a major El Greco exhibit in Toledo.
When El Greco painted altarpieces for the Chapel of San José in Toledo, he also created paintings for two side altars, “Saint Martin and the Beggar,” (1597-1599) and “Madonna and Child with Saint Martina and Saint Agnes,” (1597-1599). These paintings were sold by the church and eventually donated to the National Gallery.
“Saint Martin” recalls the legend of the Roman officer in the fourth century who cut his cloak and shared it with a freezing beggar. In this picture, Saint Martin’s black armor is described in minute detail and the form of a large white horse is sculptural. The focus in this picture is on the beggar, nearly naked, whose elongated limbs exaggerate a gaunt body. Set on a stony outcropping in front of a dark, yawning valley, the stormy sky in this picture is full of foreboding.
El Greco’s “Madonna” is a heavenly scene full of light and color, with Mary and Child surrounded by angels. Mary’s royal blue and ruby red robes shine brilliantly against pale blue clouds surrounding her. Saint Martina with a lion and Saint Agnes with her lamb are posed at Mary’s feet. The bright orange and gold cloaks form a deep angle at the base of the painting, compositionally supporting the figures above. Though the figures in this picture are nearly covered by voluminous cloaks, their necks, arms and fingers are long and slim.
Another colorful painting, “Saint Ildefonso” (1603-1614) was once owned by French Impressionist Edgar Degas. It pictures Ildefonso, one of Toledo’s patron saints, in a deep turquoise cloak, writing at a desk that is covered by a dark red cloth. The jewel-tone colors here contrast with a white statue of the Madonna on a wall.
The most unusual painting in this exhibition is “Laocoön” (1610-1614), El Greco’s lone surviving mythological painting. In this scene from Virgil’s Aeneid, serpents sent by Athena attack Laocoön and his sons. In anguished, writhing poses, three male figures fight off the snakes. On the right side of the picture, three more figures, considered to be unfinished, watch the spectacle but offer no assistance. All six nude figures have elongated limbs and pronounced musculature. In the background is a view of Toledo with a riderless horse headed toward the city’s gates. Various interpretations of this painting suggest issues related to the Counter-Reformation.
To put these paintings in context, the National Gallery produced a thirty minute film, “El Greco: An Artist’s Odyssey,” featuring new footage shot in Italy and Spain. Narrated by actor Adrien Brody, it recounts El Greco’s life and discusses some of his other works, including his magnificent canvas, “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz,” in the church of Santo Tomé in Toledo. The paintings and film together make an interesting, informative package that ably supports the concept of small exhibitions.
El Greco in the National Gallery of Art and Washington-Area Collections: A 400th Anniversary Celebration, on view at the National Gallery of Art, 6th and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, DC, 202-737-4215, www.nga.gov.