London: National Gallery, 319 pp., $65.00; $40.00 (paper)(distributed by Yale University Press)
The strangeness begins with his name, which was properly Domenikos Theotokopoulos; he always signed his works thus, often in Greek characters, but in Italy he was called Il Greco, and in Spain Domenico Greco or El Griego. The solecism El Greco is what stuck. Born in Crete, trained in Italy, he found recognition and employment only in Toledo, the capital of the Spanish Counter-Reformation, teeming with Neoplatonists and idealistic priests burning to take back Europe from the Protestants or, that hope failing, to make an implacable stand in the Spanish heartland.
In Toledo, in his mid-thirties, he found himself, and was indulged. The king in Madrid, the conscientious and grimly pious Philip II, spurned the immigrant painter’s efforts to become one of the decorators of his pet project, the gigantic monastery of San Lorenzo at El Escorial. The King had ordered the prior to equip El Greco with materials, “especially ultramarine,” for a commission on the martyrdom of Saint Maurice, but rejected the finished work, on grounds that modern critics speculate about: perhaps Philip didn’t like the contemporary portraits the painter had included, or the fact that the martyrdom itself is relegated to the middle background. El Greco, undoubtedly pious, set exalted fees, inaugurated many financial disputes, and operated on the edge of the iconographically permissible. His admirer Francisco Pacheco, who was to become the teacher of Velázquez, found that “El Greco made statements that were paradoxical and contrary to received opinion.” In his Arte de la Pintura, Pacheco wrote that the Greek was “singular in everything, as he was in painting.”
Had El Greco not invented himself, no one like him need have existed. Dutch genre painting might not have produced a Vermeer, or Venetian art a Titian, but the many close approaches would make a gap hard for even the most intuitive art historian to notice. El Greco, on the sparser cultural ground of Spain, looms as a brilliant anomaly, with a large workshop but no followers and his antecedents in Italian mannerism flamboyantly consumed within his peculiar ardor. Yet his name didn’t cross the Pyrenees during his lifetime (1541–1614), and it wasn’t until the nineteenth century (as in the case of Vermeer) that his reputation as a master took shape. Delacroix and John Singer Sargent owned copies of El Greco’s works; Cézanne did a copy of one, A Lady in a Fur Wrap (late 1570s). In the twentieth century, the homage becomes passionate, at the expense of Velázquez: the Met quotes on the exhibit’s walls Picasso (“Velázquez! What does everybody see in Velázquez these days? I prefer El Greco a thousand times more. He was really a painter”) and Matisse (“When I saw [Velázquez’s] work in Madrid, to my eyes it was like ice! Velázquez isn’t my painter: Goya, rather, or El Greco”). Jackson Pollock listed El Greco among his five favorite painters, and in his groping apprentice years copied into his notebooks rather Cubistic analyses of details …