Before El Greco Was El Greco

El Greco didn’t always paint tall, eerie, twisted figures.  He wasn’t always so extravagant.
It took him many years to make paintings his own way, to find that way.

In Crete, where he was from, he did traditional religious pictures. “An angel we do like this,” his masters told him.  “And a Virgin is painted this way. You’re getting the hang of it.”

Adoration of the Magi of El Greco (1565-1567) (public domain photo)

Dormizione della Vergine (public domain photo)

El Greco couldn’t picture  himself as just another icon painter-artisan and he left Crete for Italy.  He needed to see the famous works of art he had heard so much about, meet the great artists, and be one of them.

From Titian and Tintoretto and Veronese he picked up some tricks he thought he could use to make his own paintings more interesting: twisting the human body into unusual postures; showing it with unusual perspectives; stretching it and making the head small in proportion to the body; inventing bright and unusual colors; putting in curious backgrounds.
But he didn’t come up with his own style.
His pictures looked a little like Titians, a little like Tintorettos, a little like Veroneses.

The Modena Triptych (back panels) (1568) (public domain photo)

The sad, the worrying truth, was that in Italy he  had convinced almost no one that he was a great painter.   He had gotten himself kicked out of the Farnese Palace for big-talking and  criticizing untouchable masters like Michelangelo and Rafael.

He was a full thirty-six years old when he came to Spain.  Spain was about his last chance.  If he didn’t get a commission from the king or some rich nobles he might as well go back to Crete and polychrome angels. Fortunately he had a couple of letters of recommendation from an Italian painter who did believe in him, and a Spanish collector. The collector put him in touch with one of the most important men of Toledo, who gave El Greco his first big commission: the complete decoration—paintings, sculpture, architecture—of a new church in the convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo.
El Greco made an all-out effort to impress the people of Toledo and came up with this big Trinity painting:


The Trinity (1577)  (public domain photo)

What?  It doesn’t look like an El Greco?  Aren’t those Giotto angels that whine, Veronese clouds, and a pseudo-Michelangelo Christ?  Weren’t El Greco figures supposed to be long and slithering? Not yet.  But there is something about the colors. What’s that bright, unexpected violet of  the angel’s tunic?

El Greco may not have been very pleased himself but the patron was delighted. He convinced the board of the Cathedral to let El Greco do this work for them:


El Expolio (The Disrobing of Christ) , in the sacristy of the Toledo Cathedral (public domain photo)

El Greco had seen jeering, mocking crowds like this in the old Flemish masters or in Titian.  Here he showed he could make one too, though they don’t yet seem particularly Greco-ized.  There is the old Mannerist trick of the missing foreground.  He has begun to monkey with the sky, making strange drapes or veils of clouds. Christ is still a Michelangelo Titan.  The three Marias at the bottom of the painting, pretty as they are, could as well be by Tintoretto. The colors stand out. They are not descriptive but sentimental. Who can take his eyes off that great red robe?

Was El Greco happy with this? Many consider it his first great painting, though it doesn’t yet have the Greco traits that make him such a peculiar figure in art history.  It is good painting and he comes halfway, or three-fourths.  The composition is solid and there is enough realism (that suit of armor!) to please the traditionalists, no extravagance.  It won him Toledo.  Within a couple of years he had a big workshop going and lots of commissions.

Read  about his biggest and most famous painting: the Burial of the Count of Orgaz in El Greco’s Best.

“Oh it’s nice and all,” he must have told his pretty young Spanish wife. “But that’s still not what I wanted to do.”


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15 Responses to Before El Greco Was El Greco

  1. Ken Januski says:

    Oddly enough I was wondering about El Greco as I made my coffee this morning: what was his background? What did he do early in his life? These posts rattle around in my head long after the fact……………

    So finding that questioned answered was a pleasant surprise.

    What was more surprising though was my reaction to his first Spanish paintings: Cezanne! That was my reaction about 5 hours ago. It’s sort of unexpected though so I decided to hold off and see if it still seems that way later in the day. It does.

    I don’t know that this is particularly good or bad. And El Greco is another of those artists I’ve never studied. So what I say is based more on the illustrations I’ve seen here, and on vague recollections of paintings I’ve seen in person in the past. It’s not the view of someone who has really studied El Greco.

    But what seems so striking in both his Spanish paintings is the very shallow space. Like Cezanne the space seems to go not much further back than the actual surface of the painting. Everything comes forward from there, a little bit like a bas-relief, but nothing goes back. This seems particularly true in ‘The Disrobing of Christ’, but it also seems true in his Trinity painting. Even the little bit of sky doesn’t seem to go back into space. This isn’t at all true though in the earlier paintings that are illustrated.

    To me the Spanish paintings still look like El Greco, even the Trinity painting, partially because of this use of space, but also due to the handling of the drapery. It is hard-edged, again a bit like a bas-relief. It creates a sense of volume but a very shallow, frieze-like volume. I think the high contrast, harsh lights and darks accentuate this.

    As I notice this I think, well that’s what’s always struck me about El Greco: that shallow space, the hard-edged modeling, and of course the tall figures. But even in the Trinity the Christ figure looks very tall. Imagine if he stood up. Just his upper torso looks like it might be 4 feet tall. So so me his very first Spanish painting shows all the signs that I know to be El Greco.

    But what in the world caused the change? The Spanish paintings seem nothing like the earlier paintings that are illustrated here. The only thing I can think of, half-facetiously, is the light of Spain. But since I’ve never been there I’ll have to defer on the expert on Spain, Swallows, to see what he thinks of what I know is a crackpot theory………

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: Here you come with a melon under each arm and the last one you brought, and two or three others, are still sitting here.

      What caused the “the change”? I had better say that very few of the Italian paintings are authenticated. For a while Italian Grecos were a favorite subject of falsifiers and now there are dozens of them around, some signed. They all have to be “picked up with tweezers,” as we say in Spanish. So which of them are we going to use to illustrate the change?

      Evidently El Greco needed to get out of Italy. He couldn’t spread his wings there. Too many painters elbowing each other, too many very good ones with strong personalities. Spain was just the fresh air he needed to breathe, just the place where he could be himself. No more masters or opinionated customers looking over his shoulder while he painted.
      Oh he must have been high! He right away picked up a Spanish girlfriend along with those commissions. Toledo is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. And though the king had just moved the court away it was still an exciting center of wealth and power. Venice “owned” Crete at the time but Spain also owned parts of Italy, like Milan and Naples, so there were people around who knew and admired Italy, who spoke Italian, and so could help El Greco feel at home. I know this doesn’t explain why he painted in such a “new” way.

      I see what you mean about El Greco’s shallowness but I’m not sure his paintings are exceptionally shallow. It’s true he moves everyone and everything up front and squeezes them into the picture but don’t Veronese and Tintoretto do that too sometimes? Not only Cezanne but most of the moderns do it. Picasso is shallow (in both senses), for instance. You might almost say that a lack of depth is a characteristic of modern paintings. Those that specialize in color or in drawing. Color escapes from realism or materialism. The painter doesn’t want to be forced to paint the inevitable shadow and shine on the “body”. He doesn’t want to have to paint the predictable diminishing of the body either. He wants to be free of all that. Chagall’s heads are all faces (disks) and they might have a purple cheek and yellow hair and a blue chin. If there is a variation of the color it is not due to the “shine” of a hypothetical light on the body but to the whim of the artist or some portion of a general color scheme he is after.

      This might all be wrong. Maybe it isn’t so much a question of color as of drawing. Picasso and Matisse like to make lines. The page (space) they propose to fill is two-dimensional, not three. They distribute their shapes and colors on that flat surface. If they have to make a three-dimensional body out of their line drawing, it loses its grace.
      It’s true that Greco’s skies are often two-dimensional and the folds of his drapery seem to stop as soon as they are out of sight. Yet he does paint distant landscapes. Let me think some more about your melons.

  2. Ken Januski says:

    Swallows, you need to send me a Melon-Counter, sort of like the old Geiger-Counters, so that I know when I’m about to send you one. I never intend to be controversial, or drastically change the subject. So with a Melon-Counter I’ll pick them up with tweezers, see if they register as melons, and if so, carefully pace myself as I send them off. Of course this may be a new one itself. Readers will be saying: What’s with the melons?

    I think “Oh he must have been high” may explain it all. Maybe we’ll never know why it happened but there certainly is evidence of a real confidence and assuredness in his Spanish paintings. It may be all of the very reasonable reasons that you mention and more. I did not know how beautiful Toledo is and maybe that really is part of it. His paintings are so unique though that you can see why I speculate as to just what might have caused them, especially if the older paintings really are his.

    The reason I think so much of Cezanne, rather than of the other, later modernists is for two reasons. First that I don’t think he intended a shallow, flat space. As I recall he was always writing about how he struggled to get onto canvas the reality of what he saw. I think he believed he was a realist. So in that sense he was more akin to El Greco than to Picasso and Matisse. Second so much of modernism took him as an example. In fact there is a new show opening here in Philadelphia that takes that theory to its limits by showing, at least that’s what I’m told, how even some contemporary artists are influenced by him. I think he can be called the unwitting father of modernism, though I’m not sure he would agree. But I know this is another melon so I won’t go further.

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: Didn’t know how beautiful Toledo is? See my post at

      • Ken Januski says:

        Thanks Swallows,

        Very informative and enjoyable. I always forget what a wealth of information you have at your other blog. I forget this mainly because I’m afraid to look at it. I already spend too much time at this one!! Seriously though they are both wonderful blogs.

        I don’t think much has been written about the influence of locale on artists. I know it’s been mentioned in passing often but not in great depth that I recall. I could be wrong. I do remember going to a lecture on Richard Diebenkorn, long before he was as famous as he is today. He spent some time in Champaign, Illinois, not far from where I grew up. The lecturer attributed his dark paintings of the time to the long, oppressive Illinois winters. I was well familiar with them but still I thought: What Nonsense! Artists aren’t so easily swayed and influenced.

        But now I have to wonder. I can certainly see how a young El Greco, finding some creative breathing room in a beautiful city, with a new girlfriend, might have felt he was on top of the world. Maybe that’s part of what made the paintings!

  3. Rich says:

    Fine presentation, how El Greco’s style evolved.
    Not everybody liked it, it seems. Can’t resist to quote a somewhat weird impression of the Burial of the Count of Orgaz by A.L.Huxley:

    “El Greco’s personalities are prisoners, and worse, captives in a prison of entrails. In fact, whatever surrounds them is organic, animal. Clouds, rocks, draperies mysteriously have transmuted into slime, into peritoneus muscles. The Count of Orgaz ascends into a sky that looks like a cosmic appendix surgery. The resurrection in Madrid is like a resurrection in a digestive tract. In his later works we get the uneasy feeling of all these human and divine personalities just starting to suffer a digestive process, slowly proceeding towards assimilation by their intestines.”

    I don’t agree, but after all find it sort of entertaining.

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Rich. This isn’t serious. Huxley milked that one idea for a whole paragraph, hoping to get a laugh rather than enlighten or criticize fairly. It smacks of prejudice and snobbery and is itself an intestinal reaction. Hold on. I’ll soon post on that painting and everyone can decide whether Huxley’s is good criticism.

  4. erikatakacs says:

    The Cretan paintings look forgettable and we’we seen hundreds of Biblical scenes like those Italian ones, there’s nothing special about them. It would be nice to see how his colouring evolved but I suppose you couldn’t find colour pictures of the early works.
    In contrast the Toledo paintings do have a commanding presence. There is a striking difference between these early Toledo works and the Italian ones. He had lots of experience and expertise by the time he arrived to Toledo (he was considered a master painter at 23 back in Crete), maybe suddenly everything came together for him in Spain. Had he stayed in Italy, would the world even know his name today? Most likely not.
    Loved the post, and can’t wait for part 2!

    • cantueso says:

      Erika! Look at that avatar of yours. I think it has darkened.

      I have seen the same thing on many art photos at Wikipedia. People who really seem to know have told me it just cannot be because a digital file is a digital file and never changes.

      Maybe that swallows avatar just above yours also has gotten dark.

  5. erikatakacs says:

    Cantueso, I made it lighter for you. It didn’t change much though, need a better avatar I guess. I don’t see how digital images can darken, unless you manipulate them in some way.

  6. cantueso says:

    I did not mean to make you work on your avatar. It is simply one of the more awful computer enigmas: I know these things can’t change, and I do know that they do change.

    So when I see some dark rectangle meant to illustrate or even to decorate a blog I am tempted to ask the author whether it is what he published some years ago.

    Also, I see you like it dark. Your whole web page is very dark. Do you have blue eyes? For one of the many hypothesis I made on this problem was that blue-eyed people can see better in the dark :-).

    However, if you have time, look at this Wikipedia Commons Tiziano:

    See? The left side of the picture is just a dark patch. If you load it down (it is only some 50 KB) and make it lighter, you can see all four legs of the horse plus its tail and the trees in the background.

    And I don’t believe that the photo was originally published this way, because there are too many oldish Wikipedia art photos with the same defect.

  7. erikatakacs says:

    That’s an interesting theory about dark and blue eyes…can’t deny it and can’t confirm it. Some testing would be in order. :)

    I wonder if it’s your monitor…I could see the horse’s feet and tail on Wikipedia, but the picture seemed slightly lighter in my file. Maybe due to copy and paste, but who knows, maybe you have a point.

    Sorry, Swallows for taking up so much space with unrelated comments.

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: In fact, as you know, I had the same trouble as Cantueso: many of my pictures seem to darken in time, even those I haven’t “touched” in months–JPEGs. And it’s true: look at how dark many of the ones in Google images are, and the ones in Wikipedia. They weren’t put in that dark, I’m sure.

  8. Ken Januski says:

    “Do not try this at home” he warned. If you were to inadvertently open up a jpg file with a text editor rather than a photo editing application you’d see what seems to be gibberish, pages and pages of stuff that looks like this: “FF D8 FF E0”. That is the file in hexidecimal format(which uses a numbering system of base 16 rather than base 10).

    The reason I mention it is that this code doesn’t change, or it sure shouldn’t change, and it is what determines the appearance of the image, outside of things like your monitor and its settings. I know that everyone writing here already knows this on some level, even if not the detail I just mentioned. But I just wanted to mention a bit more about why the color of the photos should not be changing.

    I wish I knew enough to postulate some theory as to why they might be. But I’m at a total loss……………….

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks, Ken. It’s also strange that few talk about the problem and go on copying those dark pictures at Wikipedia and other places. I had observed long ago that they didn’t care what color they were. But how can they put up with paintings they can’t even see well? They must think those old masters painted with mud and tar. (I once raved about the white blobs Rembrandt piled onto one of his portraits and a friend, who wasn’t impressed, said: “That’s bird-shit.”)

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