In Crete, where he was born, he called himself Kyriakos Theotokopoulos—i.e., the Lord’s divine son; in Italy he was called Domenico Teotocopulo; in Spain Domingo Teotocópuli; he signed himself, in Greek letters, Domenikos Theotokopoulos; time has shortened him to El Greco, the nickname given him in Spain. We know nothing of his life in Crete. His ancestors may have emigrated to Crete from Constantinople after the Moslem conquest of that Greek city (1453); in any case he could feel in Crete, as later in Venice, the austere influence of Byzantine mosaics. In his day Crete belonged to Venice; not unnaturally the young artist, hearing of painting’s heyday there, took ship in excited hopefulness to the lagoons, and probably joined the large colony of Greeks in that cosmopolitan capital. He studied under Titian for two or more years, admired Tintoretto’s art of grouping figures in a crowded picture, and may have caught Veronese’s flair for rich and colorful robes. He copied famous paintings with patient humility in Venice, Reggio Emilia, Parma, and Florence, and he arrived in Rome not long after Michelangelo’s death (1564).
The first definite notice we have of him is in a letter written at Rome November 16, 1570, by Giulio Clovio to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese:
There has arrived in Rome a young man from Candia, a pupil of Titian, who is, I think, a painter of rare talent…. He has painted a portrait of himself which is admired by all the painters in Rome. I should like him to be under the patronage of your revered lordship, without any other contribution to his living than a room in the Farnese Palace.7
The Cardinal consented, and El Greco rewarded Clovio with a masterly portrait.8 When talk arose about the nudes in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, Domenico offered, if the whole picture were taken down, to replace it with another just as good and better clothed.9 His standing with Roman artists fell. Some Spanish prelates in Rome told him that Philip II was looking for painters to decorate the Escorial. In 1572 he moved to Spain, shaking the dust of Rome from his shoes, but taking on his brush something of the distortions of Italian mannerism.
We have no record of him thereafter till 1575, when we find him both designing and adorning the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, the ecclesiastical capital of Spain. For its altar he painted the magnificent Assumption of the Virgin that now holds so prominent a place in the Chicago Art Institute—partly modeled on Titian’s Assunzione in the Frari at Venice, and still in the Italian style of healthy youthful forms and majestic old heads. For the cathedral at Toledo he painted (1577) a famous Espolio de las vestiduras del Señor—despoiling of the garments of the Lord. A commission appointed to judge the picture complained that the tunic of Jesus was too glaringly red, and that the women at the lower left—the three Marys—were out of place there, since the Scriptures said they had looked on from afar; nevertheless the judges prophetically pronounced the painting “inestimable, so great is its value.”10 One of the Marys was the painter’s mistress, Doña Jerónima de las Cuevas, whose sad and lovely face appears in most of El Greco’s Virgins. Despite his loyalty to her and the Church he never married her; this was not an old Spanish custom, but one long sanctified in artists’ studios.
A writer of the next generation, José Martínez, described Domenico as already confident of immortality:
He settled in … Toledo, introducing such an extravagant style that to this day nothing has been seen to equal it; attempting to discuss it would confuse the soundest minds…. He gave it to be understood that there was nothing superior to his works…. His nature was extravagant like his painting…. He used to say no price was high enough for his works, and so he gave them in pledge to their owners, who willingly advanced him what he asked for them…. He was a famous architect, and very eloquent in his speeches. He had few disciples, as no one cared to follow his capricious and extravagant style, which was only suitable to himself.11
Toward 1580 Philip II sent for El Greco and asked him to paint St. Maurice and the Theban Legion. After four years of labor the artist presented the result to the King. Philip found the grouping of the figures too confused; the picture was paid for but not accepted, and El Greco returned grieving to Toledo, which, so far as we know, he never left again. It was just as well, for now he was free to be his mystic self.
As if in revenge, he painted for the Church of Santo Tomé (1586) his most famous picture, one of the high points of pictorial art. The contract stipulated that he should show the clergy commemorating the tradition that saints had descended from heaven to bury Don Gonzalo Ruiz, Count Orgaz; St. Stephen and St. Augustine (in episcopal vestments) were to be shown lowering the body to the tomb, amid a reverent assemblage of notables; and over these figures the heavens, opening, were to reveal the Son of God in glory. All this was done to the letter, and much more, for almost every head is a finished portrait, the robes are a marvel of gold and green and white, the demascened armor of the Count gleams with light; and, for good measure, behind St. Stephen may be seen El Greco himself. The masterpiece of this masterpiece is the bearded, mitered head of St. Augustine. Or should we prefer the handsome corpse? Or the lovely face of St. Stephen? Or the bald priest reading the burial service? Or El Greco’s eight-year-old son Jorge Manuel proudly holding a torch and letting a handkerchief emerge from his pocket to display El Greco’s signature? In Francisco de Pisa’s History of Toledo (1612) we read what we should have surmised: this Burial of Count Orgaz “is one of the very finest [paintings] in all Spain. Men come from foreign lands to see it, with especial admiration; and the people of Toledo, far from tiring of it, continually find in it new matter to gaze at. In it may be seen, realistically portrayed, many of the illustrious men of our time.”12 However, the parish council haggled over the fee; the hot-tempered Greek took the matter to court, won his case, and received two thousand crowns.
He had no dearth of commissions now. He had found himself; he no longer thought of Titian or Tintoretto; and he could experiment with the elongation of forms, not because he suffered any defect of eyesight, but probably because he felt that he might in this way symbolize the spiritual exaltation of his figures—bodies stretched out by heaven-seeking souls. In the St. Andrew and St. Francis of the Prado this emaciation seems unintelligible unless we consider such symbolism, and recall Gothic statuary slenderized for architectural limitations. All is forgiven when we come to the St. Ildefonso painted for the Caridad Hospital at Illescas; here in the reverend spirit, the absorbed mind, the ascetic face, the thin white hairs, and the delicate hands of the medieval archbishop is one of El Greco’s profoundest conceptions. “This one picture would repay the journey to Spain.”13
We do not gather, from the little we know about El Greco’s life, that he was Hispanically pious; he seems to have inclined to pleasure rather than sanctity. When he painted The Holy Family for the Tavera Hospital he endowed the Virgin with sensual beauty, not maternal dedication. The Crucifixion is anatomically erudite but emotionally cold; Grünewald felt that tragedy far more deeply. In his religious pictures El Greco is at his best in the incidental portraits—as of himself, with white beard and bald head, in The Pentecost. In a city crowded with ecclesiastics he had no difficulty in getting powerful personalities to sit for him: his friend the Trinitarian Paravicino (Boston), with a face half scholar, half Inquisitor; or the Grand Inquisitor himself, Cardinal Niño de Guevara (New York)—not quite as good as Velázquez’ imitation portrait of Innocent X. El Greco himself surpassed it in The Cardinal of Tavera, whose gaunt face, all bones and somber eyes, express again the artist’s conception of ecclesiastical consecration. But the best of all the portraits are of the brothers Covarrubias: one, Antonio, secular, grizzled, disillusioned, weary, forgiving; the other, Diego, in priestly garb, but looking much more worldly, more humorous, quite well adjusted. Only a few Rembrandts and Titians, and Raphael’s Julius II, excel these profound studies.
They are among the treasures gathered in the Casa del Greco Museum at Toledo. There, too, is the Plan of Toledo, in which the artist surveys, as from a cloud, the whole city and its encompassing hills. He represented it again, late in his life, in the View of Toledounder stormy skies (New York)—an impressionist picture utterly disdaining realist accuracy. By 1600 “the Greek” had become one of the town’s most famous citizens, known to all for his proud and capricious spirit, a mystic with a taste for money, occupying twenty-four rooms in an old palace, hiring musicians to play for him at his meals, gathering about him the intellectuals of Toledo, and honored as an “eminent philosopher.”14 About 1605 he painted what is presumed to be his self-portrait (New York)—bald, gray, almost haggard. In 1611 Pacheco found him too weak to walk. Though he still kept his twenty-four rooms, he could not pay his debts; the city council repeatedly voted him substantial sums. He died in 1614, aged seventy-three.
His standing in the world of art has been a posthumous adventure. Góngora wrote a sonnet eulogy, and Velázquez recognized his genius, but his strange art inspired no imitation, founded no school. By 1650 he was lost in the glare of Velázquez’ fame. For two centuries he was almost forgotten. Then Delacroix rediscovered him, Degas, Manet, and Cézanne took a lead from his rendering of moods; van Gogh and Gauguin saw in him their own progenitor. In 1907 Julius Meier-Graefe’s Spanish Journey raised El Greco far above Velázquez to the highest place in Spanish painting. Such oscillations of fame are precarious, being subject to “the wild vicissitudes of taste.”15 But El Greco will remain for many centuries to come a stimulating example of an artist who reached beyond objects to ideas and feelings, and beyond bodies to souls.