El Greco’s Portraits

El Greco got his painter’s license already back in Crete when he was a young man. Then he travelled to Italy and worked beside masters such as Tintoretto and Titian.
Yet he was a full thirty-six years old by the time he came to Spain and he hadn’t painted any really extraordinary picture.

Actually, there WAS one. This portrait:

Giulio Clovio

Portrait of his friend Giulio Clovio

It was just this man who believed in El Greco and put him in touch with some important people in Spain. Often, when you are good at something, you don’t make a fuss about it, even to yourself. El Greco preferred to do imaginary scenes and twisted his brain to come up with original ideas for them. Portraits he just let come out as they might. But they came out very well.

He painted this one of the beautiful girl he met just after coming to Madrid.


Jerónima de las Cuevas

“Here,” he told her with a kiss. “I thought you’d like this ermine stole.”  Jerónima became the mother of his son Jorge Manuel.

El Greco set himself up in Toledo, where he received important commissions for churches and convents. He worked hard on those and meanwhile satisfied his patrons with their portraits.  One of his most famous is this Knight with His Hand on His Breast, now in the Prado Museum of Madrid:


This pretty Virgin Mary, now in a palace of Toledo, might as well be a portrait:


In his most ambitious painting, the Burial of the Count of Orgaz, he included twenty of them. Faces like this one of the parish priest:


And that of his little boy, Jorge Manuel :


Cardinal Niño de Guevara sat for him:


There is an exhibition of his works on now, Spring, 2009, in Toledo. To illustrate El Greco’s technique the organizers have put side-by-side a portrait by a competent contemporary painter (Coello) and El Greco’s copy of that portrait.

Why did El Greco copy a portrait?  Couldn’t he have made the portrait directly from the sitter? No. The sitter was long dead. El Greco’s commission was to paint the man and he had to see how he looked from another painter’s portrait.


Diego de Covarrubias  by Alonso Sánchez Coello, above , and El Greco, below.

Coello’s portrait (top) is good—excellent, in fact, but static. Greco’s rough technique, so apparently imprecise, makes the image more vibrant, the sitter more alive.   His tired, old Covarrubias  is worried or  sentimental. Of course the expression he achieves may not have been characteristic of the man.

Here are the two portraits, complete:

covarrubias-greco-sanchez coello


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16 Responses to El Greco’s Portraits

  1. erikatakacs says:

    He was a great portraitist, no question about it. I’m not sure he comes up on top with his copy though. My eyes kept going back to Coello’s version. The broad forehead, arched brows, the questioning eyes suggest a man wit great intellect, with some mystery about him. What character does El Greco’s man have? Hard to tell, he just looks tired and old, much older than the original sitter. The style is very interesting though, the undefined brushwork somehow magically manages to hold everything in place. He’s a master.

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: You’re right. If Covarrubias (the sitter) stood out for his wit and intellect then Greco’s portrait is a real failure. I was impressed by the effectiveness of Greco’s fuzzy style and the sentimental look he gave the man.

  2. erikatakacs says:

    Swallows, do you know any facts about the sitter, his character?

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: His name is Diego de Covarrubias. In Toledo there are portraits by El Greco of both him and his brother Antonio, who was the man El Greco knew. The exhibition catalog calls Antonio a famous Humanist and one of a circle of Toledo intellectuals but of his brother Diego they say nothing. I should have included all of the portrait because he is wearing a cossack, a surplice, and a biretta: he was a priest. Those brothers were the sons of a famous architect, Alonso de Covarrubias. Maybe, given the importance of that family and the times they lived in, Diego’s never having risen above the rank of a simple parish priest means that he was the way Greco imagined him. Still, Sanchez Coello did know him and painted a sharp-minded man.

  3. Rich says:

    The Giulio Clovio portrait looks pretty academic, painted during the early period in Spain. But that approaching thunderstorm there out of the window to me already announces the visionary painter of a later stage.
    Would El Greco there have been allowed to paint a woman’s portrait without such a “burka headgear”? How nice that most charming lady might have looked open haired. Or, in addition to the Christian; was it also the Islamic Moor influence at work that forbid?
    And that juxtaposition of the last two portraits is so fascinating. The liberties he took! The man there got a shave, and kind of a face-lift too; the skin folds between nose and mouth for instance have disappeared.
    Those lips! The standard rendering usually draws the upper lip in shade, with the light usually falling on the protruding under lip, as we find in the original: El Greco in his copy lighted up both lips so lively…what a master!

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: Can you make out what picture Giovio has in that book. Only after writing this post did it occur to me that he was the famous art collector and writer who wrote the first biography of Michelangelo.
      Vasari thought Giovio was not as qualified as he, Vasari, was to write biographies since Giovio was not a practicing artist. So in reaction to Giovio’s work (and reputation) he set to work.

      I don’t know about the Muslim influence on women’s dress, Rich. Didn’t women usually and everywhere cover their heads before modern times?

      I was going to follow up this post with another on Greco’s technique but decided it was too technical. Now at the current Greco exhibition in Toledo that is one of the most fascinating things. One of his unfinished series of Christ and the twelve Apostles in on display and you can see exactly how he worked, layer by layer. His first biographer (Velazquez’s father-in-law) says he was the kind of painter who kept going over his pictures and making infinite corrections, but what you see in the exhibition and elsewhere contradicts that. That free style of his is very contagious to painters of our time.

  4. Ken Januski says:

    If I were to see the Coello portrait by itself, which I do to a certain extent because I see if first as I scroll down the page, I might think it was a very good portrait. But it does pale compared to El Greco.

    There is a forcefulness and blush of vigorous health to the former. Even his torso seems more expansive and robust. But there’s also an unnatural finish and gloss to the face in particular. I’d almost think it was based on a photo if I didn’t know better. But the El Greco seems more naturalistic. The skin seems to breathe, to live in a world that includes air, not just the varnished surface of a painting.

    I know this is a bit harsh and I don’t mean to criticize the Coello. It is very good. But I do think the El Greco is by far the better portrait.

    I must confess also that I have a thorough bias toward art that shows some sense of how it was made. The painterliness of El Greco is very evident. This isn’t inherently good, just inherently good in my world, so I wanted to point out my bias.

    This would be a great comparison for a class in art or art history. And it shows what a Brain Twister can accomplish when he gives his brain a rest!

    • 100swallows says:

      Heck, Ken, don’t you worry about offending old Sánchez Coello. I have to say that Erika made me admit that his was a very good portrait too–maybe a better one: too bad we don’t have another picture of Covarrubias to compare. There is one of his brother but that doesn’t help much. It was the brother who was supposed to be the great Humanist.
      I guess all of us in this time have your bias. As I said in my message to Rich, Greco’s technique is the star of the current exhibition in Toledo. Old Covarrubias practically sighs for you as you stand there comparing the portraits; and you realize that it is the seeming sloppiness of Greco’s brush that does the trick, no question about it. Clever, your last sentence.

  5. erikatakacs says:

    I just saw the last addition of the two full pictures side by side, and what a difference it makes! The cropped faces just didn’t do justice to El Greco. His version shows Covaburrias in a more personal light compared to Coello’s more “official”, more detached light. Maybe that’s what his brother was after when commissioning a second portrait afther the man’s death? El Greco’s version seems just as good now, but since I didn’t know the man I still prefer the more intelligent face of Coello’s work. If I was staying in front of them, who knows, I might decide the El Greco is the better one.

  6. the painting, Jerónima de las Cuevas, is lovely. plus the lady is so pretty too.

  7. Israel says:

    hello, I have a picture of El Greco (11″x15″) when he was young, it was purchased originally in spain aproximatelly in 1940’s, it is in very good shape, I am selling it

  8. Sky says:

    The portrait under the text –
    ‘He painted this one of the beautiful girl he met just after coming to Madrid’
    is not currently attributed to El Greco.
    I’ve researched much of his work practices and processes – covering all of the portraits attributed to him, involving several trips to the Prado, National Gallery London etc and have always had a problem – stylistically and technique-wise with this portrait.
    Significant difference in handling of the flesh tones, weak rendition of the hand, tackling of tonal gradation and other issues make this the work of another painter, in my opinion.
    Fine work – but not by El Greco.

    • 100swallows says:

      Sky: Thanks very much but what a disappointment! If not El Greco, then who could have painted such a fine portrait? My first guess was Tintoretto (though I am no specialist and know nothing of scientific methods). I checked what my old Noguer-Rizzoli edition had to say on the picture and found this, which I’ll translate for the information of my general reader:
      “Generally identified as Jerónima de las Cuevas…Confirmando the hypothesis, Waterhouse [1951] reads, on the ring the woman is wearing on her index finger, the first Greek initial of her name. This form of identification does not appear in any other work by El Greco and most critics prefer to consider it a reflection. It has also been advanced, though not very convincingly, that the sitter might be Catalina Micaela, the daughter of Philip II, or a lady of the royal family; but the lady of the portrait does not seem to be of so high a lineage. Attributed by Beruete [“GBA” 1901] to Tintoretto, and questioned by various critics, it would however fit perfectly into El Greco’s production of the first Spanish period. [M. W. Pl. ] Lafuente Ferrari has revived doubts on the authenticity of the work.Willumsen moves the date back to the Italian period, observing that the sitter’s hairstyle is Cretan; actually, hairstyles of this kind appear in the portraits of ladies in the court of Henry VIII, drawn by Holbein. There are no known replicas, only later copies.”
      by Tiziana Frati , La obra píctorica completa de El Greco in the Clásicos del arte, Noguer-Rizzoli Editores, 1970

      Would you now go along with Berute or do you have another artist in mind?

  9. Cherie Pope says:

    About 15 years ago I bought a very old picture & frame in a thrift store. I wanted to thoroughly clean it so took it apart. Much to my surprise, under the picture was an ancient oil painting of El Greco’s “Pretty Virgin”. I am a former oil painter so it was easy for me to tell this painting was very old. It was obviously was cut from its frame. I have kept this painting carefully stored. My niece found this website. I am interested in the value of the painting that I have. I am a senior with a small income so I have no money to go to a professional for a valuation.

    • 100swallows says:

      Cherie Pope: I don’t think you will be able to find out if it’s an El Greco without “going to a professional”. And that will cost you money. My opinion–or anyone’s– about its authenticity is not good enough. You will need the certificate of several experts. As you know, most great painters had their imitators and helpers. Just last week I was in the Greco house in Toledo and saw copies of his work by followers, even by Greco’s son. Here is the link to a specialized firm that will investigate and then appraise your painting. Ask them, if you dare, for an estimate of their services. http://www.globalartclassic.com
      Maybe it’s cheaper than we think. Good luck!

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