El Greco, whose real name was Domenikos Theotokopoulos, was born in Crete in 1541; he moved to Venice and then Rome before settling in Spain in 1576. Throughout El Greco's life he experimented with different styles of painting -- he began as an icon painter in his youth, and his stylistic roots are in the Eastern Orthodox traditions that had already existed for a thousand years. As he migrated West, he encountered and assimilated other approaches to painting.
As a young man, El Greco painted icons in Crete. These paintings only depicted religious figures and events from scripture and the earliest centuries of Christian tradition. Due to this spiritual focus, icons were not simply paintings meant to inspire interested viewers in a gallery; they were objects of veneration in Orthodox churches. The religious intensity in many of El Greco's later works may be due to his grounding in this traditional style.
The Painterly Technique
In Venice, under the influence of artists such as Titian and Tintoretto, El Greco learned the "painterly technique" -- a set of techniques meant to add life to painted figures. His paintings from this time period on frequently demonstrate this influence in the layers of color blended to create a rich glow, and the free, sketch-like appearance of the painted canvas.
In Rome, El Greco learned mannerism, a style of painting which eschewed realistic appearances of the physical world and demonstrated subjective views that existed first and foremost in the mind of the painter. In mannerist paintings, spaces and figures were compressed or bizarrely elongated, for example. The point of such painting was to emphasize the subject as conceived by the artist, rather than to present a real object with lifelike accuracy.
As the Counter-Reformation got underway in the late 16th century, El Greco became one of Spain's most prominent artists. His primary patrons were powerful churchmen and others interested in promoting the beauty of the Roman Catholic tradition. The focus of his work until his death was religious and sacramental, but expressed with the mannerism he had learned as a younger man. He depicted Christ, the apostles and other Christian figures of importance in his cold and eerie style.
Naturalism In Portraits
The many portraits El Greco painted were, conversely, naturalistic in style; however, his portraits are unusually good at doing more than just depicting physical features realistically. They have an uncanny ability to express the subject's character.
- Metropolitan Museum of Art; Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History; El Greco
- Web Museum, Paris: El Greco
- The National Gallery of Art; The Collection; El Greco
- Metropolitan Museum of Art; Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History; Venetian Color and Florentine Design
- The National Gallery of Art; The Collection; Mannerism
- Ian Waldie/Getty Images News/Getty Images