El Greco was a formidable figure of the Spanish Renaissance and Italian Mannerism. He was among the first artists to introduce Renaissance art to Spain through his travels to the said country. Much of his success had been attributed to his mature works in Spain under the patronage of King Philip II.
El Greco was an artist of all sorts; from fine arts, literature, architecture and sculpture. Although he was a native of Crete, Republic of Venice and highly influenced by the Venetian art, he spent his adult and later years in Toledo, Spain where he was also responsible for giving life to the extinguishing Spanish art during the 16th century. Today, Greco is renowned for his paintings such as The Disrobing of Christ (1579), The Holy Trinity (1579) and The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (1588).
Less information is available to determine the exact birth date and place of El Greco but by having close analysis of his documented works and commissions later on would suggest that he was born around 1541. Art historians also believe that El Greco was born and raised in Candia or Fodele, a small village of Crete, Venice. Hence, he was named El Greco (The Greek) to refer to his Greek origin.
He came from a wealthy family from the city, who may have been the victims of a series of social unrest in Chania against the Venetian rules from 1526 to 1528. Due to this unrest, his family might have been forced to move to Candia, a small village in Crete, and had stayed there since. Greco’s family was believed to have acquired their wealth through commercial trading as his father, Georgios Theotokopoulos and brother Monoussos were successful merchants.
At an early age, El Greco showed enthusiasm in painting and thus he was sent to the Cretan School to receive his earliest training as a painter. The said school was famous for its contributions to the development of post-Byzantine art combined with its specialties in Greek and Latin classics. El Greco received his language training through the said school.
Fortunately for Greco, being a painter in Candia was a lucrative career path for it used to be the center of creative craftsmanship in the city. It was where both arts that flourished from the East and the West boil down altogether, making it a prime destination for journeymen.
Before El Greco turned 23 he had earned the “Master” title as per his own guild, which followed the Italian process of selecting masters. Having said this, it is also safe to assume that he must have established his own studio by that time freelancing under the signature “Master Menegos Theotokopoulos” during 1566.
Growing up under the influences of Venetian art and techniques, it was only logical for El Greco to go Venice and pursue his career there. He might have gone to the said city around 1567 and stayed there until 1570. During this period, Titian was the go-to master of several painters across the country and it is unlikely for El Greco to have not entered the studio of Titian. In fact, El Greco’s friend and acclaimed miniaturist, Giulio Clovio, approved of this fact that the Cretan painter did enter Titian’s workshop as an assistant.
During his 20’s, El Greco traveled to and fro of Venice and Rome. He moved to Rome in 1570 to pursue a career under the patronage of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, a wealthy and influential art patron in the city. El Greco was noticed by the said patron for his rare talent in painting and on the endorsement of Giulio Clovio.
So from 1570 to 1576, El Greco had been staying in Palazzo Farnese to work as a court artist. He was lucky enough to get acquainted with the influential people in Rome, particularly among the intellectual circles such as Fulvio Orsini. In fact, Orsini employed El Greco to paint about seven paintings as part of his desired collection, in which the View of Mount Sinai and the portrait of Clovio were a part of.
The early works of El Greco were reminiscent to traditional Venetian style of painting, which may be opted him to somehow put some changes into it. He saw this goal as a way to differentiate himself from other painters and he did it by providing unconventional interpretations of his religious subjects. But before this discovery of particular sense of style, El Greco’s works resemble the creations of Tintoretto and Tiziano. These painters would have also taught him how to color the figures vividly as well as in composing a vibrant landscape.
El Greco had a unique approach to painting. Clovio revealed that he would often find his friend sitting in a dark room, thinking that darkness can provide him a higher degree of focus that he needed unlike when he’s exposed to direct sunlight. This allowed El Greco to produce paintings with enriched colors and bold perspective combined with strange strokes by the figures, which embody Mannerism.
Towards the end of 1576, El Greco had a hard time living in Rome due to his critics and archrivals. He was replaced by Pirro Ligorio, one of his enemies, who have had continued his works in the Farnese Palace. After he received payments for his work, he established his own studio and employed the likes of Francisco Preboste and Lattanzio Bonastri de Lucigno as his assistants.
In 1577, he decided to move to Toledo, Spain to pursue a much better career opportunity. Toledo city was a religious and populous dwelling place already but it used to be the center of arts and culture in the past. He was called upon by King Philip II to restore El Escorial, a monastery. The King had known of his works through a Spanish scholar, Beneto Arias Montano who was also the King’s agent.
In Toledo, El Greco befriended several intellectuals and artists like Luis de Castilla and Pedro Chachon that served instrumental in opening his career to larger commissions. Therefore right after he arrived at Toledo, he already got a contract in which he was tasked to decorate the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo and El Espolio. He painted 9 paintings for the Dominican church in 1579 and some of these works included The Assumption of the Virgin and The Trinity.
As ambitious as he had always been, El Greco wanted to the King’s primary court painter so he continued impressing his clients with his artworks. And this should serve him well as managed to win two contracts from the King, for whom he painted the Martyrdom of St. Maurice and the Allegory of the Holy League.
Unfortunately, the abovementioned paintings were turned down by the King because of El Greco’s decision to include living persons in a scene that meant to be classical and religious. Although he failed to win some more commissions by the King, he managed to open his own workshop in Toledo, for which he hired Francisco Preboste as an assistant. In 1586, his workshop was awarded a commission for painting The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, a masterpiece.
The pinnacle of El Greco’s career took place anywhere between 1597 and 1607. He received a series of worthy commissions by religious groups that paved the way for his workshop’s growth. He was responsible for creating altarpieces and designing altars for the Chapel of San Jose, Colegio de Dona Maria de Aragon and a painting for the Capilla Mayor of the Hospital de la Caridad. Among these several works, what stood out the most was The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception which he began painting in 1607 and completed in 1613.
El Greco stayed for good in Toledo until 1608 when he got his last commission for the Hospital of St. John the Baptist. He stayed in an apartment complex that had 24 rooms but the property was owned by Marquis de Villena. This residential complex also served as his venue for workshop sessions with his assistants while taking also the time studying Spanish art. Apparently, he had lived a comfortable life wherein sometimes he would request musicians to come up to his complex and play music while he dined.
However, there was never solid evidence of his marriage to any woman, especially when he was linked to Jeronima de Las Cuevas. But the couple had a son named Jorge Manuel who was born on 1578. Jorge also became a painter as he was apprenticed to his father. As the legitimate heir of his father’s estate, he acquired El Greco’s studio later on and got married to Alfonsa de los Morales, and together they gave the patriarch a grandson named Gabriel.
El Greco died in April 7, 1614 at the age of 73 due to a chronic illness. His works for the Hospital Tavera were left unfinished and it was apparently continued by his students. His remains were buried in Santo Domingo el Antiguo church in Toledo.