El Greco
El Greco; drawing by David Levine

Proud, cultivated, and hedonistic, El Greco was throughout his lifetime rightly considered to be a great and highly successful artist. We first hear of him in 1570, just arrived in Rome from Venice at the age of twenty-nine, as being “rarely gifted in painting. And among other things he has made a portrait of himself which astounds all these Roman painters.” Forty years later, having long since settled in Spain, he and his workshop were turning out such a stream of saints and apostles, annunciations and baptisms, that a modern historian has referred to him as “the Henry Ford of Toledo.”

In retrospect one at least of the many mysteries surrounding the art of El Greco is that once upon a time it was evidently so unmysterious. The king, it is true, did not like The Martyrdom of St. Maurice; theorists disapproved of his defiance of Italian rules of proportion; and officials often grumbled at his prices. But provincial churches and convents kept up a steady demand for pictures which, since their re-emergence early in the last century from almost total obscurity and neglect, have been described as the work of a lunatic, of a man consumed with a passion for novelty at all costs, a sufferer from defective eyesight, and many other mental and physical disabilities. (Ernest Hemingway accused him of being a homosexual.)

Today such charges are dismissed out of hand, and the art of El Greco is called “expressionist.” This is a great improvement, no doubt, perhaps the nearest we can get to an understanding as well as an appreciation of his painting; but the element of glib modernism implicit in the term and the frequency with which El Greco is congratulated on having anticipated late nineteenth and early twentieth century painting should make us at least hesitant, if not downright skeptical, before endorsing it as a figure of praise. Mysteries remain. How far does Ferrari’s extraordinarily lavish book help to solve them for us?

The book has several great merits. Fortunately the subtitle is misleading, and we are by no means restricted to a discussion of the artist’s last years. The color plates vary in quality, but are often very good indeed—the glossiness sometimes disconcerts, but again and again we are given a very reasonable impression of the original, and can surrender to the magic of those nacreous, writhing bodies, delicate and fluttering hands, icy, vibrating colors. The discussion of the paintings pays proper (but not slavish) homage to Harold Wethey’s sensibly “restrictive” catalogue, and avoids the rubbish that unscrupulous dealers and art historians tried some years ago to pass off as early works. The section of the text devoted to “the annals of Toledo in the time of El Greco” provides a helpful and convenient yearly summary of events in the city; and the two essays by the Spanish art historians Lafuente Ferrari and Pita Andrade are thoughtful and contain valuable insights—so much so that it is puzzling to find the latter’s essay described by the publishers merely as an appendix.

Editorially, there is more to worry about: in at least one case both authors quote the same (very important) document in different translations which convey different implications; elsewhere we are deprived of useful information on the grounds that “the story is too well known,” the documents having been published, in Spanish, in 1914; and there is no index. However, enough material—both illustrative and documentary—is provided for us to try, once again, to ponder over the exhilarating problems presented by the pictures of this strange and beautiful artist.

El Greco’s systematic writings about art have been lost, and we can only reconstruct his approach to it through a few scattered comments of varying degrees of authenticity. But scanty as these are, they all make clear beyond any possibility of doubt that he was a highly self-conscious painter who knew what he was doing—“a great philosopher,” in the words of someone who met him. Indeed, the inventory of his library reveals an exceptional range of interests, and although determined efforts to prove that he “must have been in contact” with the greatest writers and mystics of his period have, as yet, got no further than plausible speculation, there is no doubt that he was in close touch with many men of real intellectual distinction: at one time or another every writer on him has had to refer to the discussions that he must presumably have had with humanists in Rome and Toledo.

It is now generally assumed that El Greco went to Spain in 1577 because he had received assurances from the influential Spaniards he met in Rome that, once in Toledo, he would be given commissions for important altarpieces, which were denied to him, as a foreigner, in Italy. At that time he had painted a number of greatly admired pictures in the Venetian style (few of which survive), and it seems probable that his Spanish friends hoped that this pupil of Titian would continue to produce works in a convention that was already keenly appreciated in their native land. It is possible, however, that, during the course of one of those humanist discussions which we are all forced to postulate, El Greco explained his plans for a new type of religious painting which, given the opportunity, he hoped to adopt in Spain. What might he have said?


The question is no sooner asked than one regrets having asked it. Not only does an element of Hollywood naïveté and philistinism make itself felt, but Lafuente Ferrari (who introduces the book with some seventy pages of eloquent and perceptive commentary) is very severe indeed with almost anyone who has tried to explain the creative processes of this artist, and announces sternly (and with justification) that “it is useless to look to us, mere writers, to unveil great secrets.” The fact remains, however, that during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries a number of painters were certainly trying—for the first time in many hundreds of years—to create a specifically religious art in order to satisfy the requirements of the Catholic resurgence throughout much of Europe. At some time, therefore, we are entitled to assume that the “philosopher” El Greco, whether in Rome or in Spain, came to the carefully considered conclusion that what he had been able to see in Italy could not fully serve that purpose.

Was the art of Venice too worldly? El Greco must have known the late works of Titian, and to us it seems difficult to believe that anyone could have thought of them in those terms. Certainly he seems to have remained loyal to the memory of his master until the end of his life if—as I strongly suspect—his famous comment to Pacheco in 1611 that “Michelangelo was a good man but he did not know how to paint” was intended to be, at least in part, an ironical riposte to Michelangelo’s patronizing observation (as reported by Vasari) that if Titian “were aided by art and design as he is by nature, he would not be surpassed, for he has ability and a charming and vivacious style.” But perhaps El Greco thought that the style of Titian was unsuitable for a people who, in the words of Lafuente Ferrari, were “less contaminated in their artistic tastes by the dross of humanism.” Nonetheless, he never underestimated the overriding importance of color in order to achieve his aims, and this no doubt contributed to his unpopularity in Rome.

But color was not enough. Despite the example of Tintoretto, it was almost certainly outside Venice that this Cretan, who had been brought up on Byzantine art, first fully understood that figurative distortion, hitherto mainly adopted for elegant decoration, could be put to new expressive use.

Expressive of what? “The quite unclassical snub nose lends a singular spirituality to the Saviour’s face”—taken out of context, these words of Lafuente Ferrari about a late Christ Carrying the Cross have more than a touch of the absurd. Yet to understand the novelty and the power that have been claimed for the art of El Greco we need to understand why the unclassical should be equated with the spiritual, and whether the equation is necessarily a valid one—without allowing ourselves to be daunted by such assertions as Lafuente Ferrari’s view that “all the art of our time…is rooted in a principle which can be summed up as the predilection for distorting forms in order to coerce them into saying more than the obvious and the iterative which is all that their simple reproduction can communicate.”

To refute this we need only turn to Jonathan Brown’s admirable book on Zurbarán and look at that artist’s marvelous Still Life with Oranges, Lemons, and a Cup of Water in the Norton Simon Foundation, painted a generation after the death of El Greco. The reproduction is simple, the balance absolutely classical, but “even to the casual viewer,” as Brown writes, “this picture generates a power totally out of proportion to its unpretentious subject matter. Zurbarán has seemingly elevated humble objects to a higher plane of reality.” Again and again, his grave, stolid, sometimes clumsy figures do exactly that, and compel us to question the assumption that the febrile world of El Greco has about it a unique spirituality.

Were it not for the enormous output of El Greco’s studio, it would be hard to believe—as we must—that the aristocratic refinement and exquisite color, the rhetorical poses and androgynous, teasing sensuality (produced by a man who offered to repaint Michelangelo’s Last Judgment, should the Pope have it destroyed, “with honesty and decorum suitable for good quality in painting”) could, in the early seventeenth century, have kindled the faith of the peasants and nuns of provincial Spain as they were later to titillate that of the “decadent” Catholics of the Nineties—such as Maurice Barrès, who did so much to spread his later fame. But those peasants, alas, remain dumb—and not even the diligent researches of Pita Andrade into the spiritual background to El Greco’s life can help to unravel their responses.


Supported by a solid phalanx of artists, art historians, and the pious nuns of Toledo and its surroundings, Lafuente Ferrari confronts the skeptic and alternately cajoles and bullies him into submission—his adjectives rival in intensity the images of El Greco himself, and many of the reproductions in the volume momentarily still any doubts: the tremendous portrait of the Grand Inquisitor for instance, painted by an artist about whom Pita Andrade is forced to write with oblique, secondhand apologetics, “We must suppose, Marañon assures us, that El Greco must not have taken much pleasure in the shameful spectacle of the autos-da-fé of 1580, 1591, 1594, and 1600.”

Yet the doubts return. Expressiveness need not, perhaps should not, be the same as Expressionism, but in El Greco’s final years the two concepts seem to merge—or, rather, the latter concept takes over from the former, and a tremulous, all-embracing egotism, conveyed (as always) with consummate artistry, annihilates that profoundly stirring tension between our world and the next which we experience so vividly in the early Spanish masterpieces such as The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. I am not absolutely clear why it should be claimed as a merit of El Greco’s late paintings of the Apostles that the hands have “certain difficult torsions of the fingers such as can often be remarked in the gestures of very nervous persons.” Madness, a craving for originality. While it would be ludicrous to return to the nineteenth-century view of El Greco, is there not (as Edgar Wind pointed out in Art and Anarchy) something to be said for the attitude of the great German critic Carl Justi (scornfully arraigned in this volume as “crammed with prejudices and therefore scarcely the man to comprehend the peculiar physiognomy of Spanish art”) who, according to Wind, “combined an acute awareness of El Greco’s quality as a painter with a carefully considered rejection of his artistic character.”

The professional art historian is not nowadays forgiven for adopting such an attitude—toward El Greco or any other artist. Everyday experience, however, shows that it is spontaneous among most people whose love of art is more closely related to wider sympathies and antipathies. Moreover, this division between painterly quality and moral significance becomes most apparent in the responses aroused by those of El Greco’s contemporaries and successors who, like him but in very different ways, were trying to create a specifically devotional art—Federico Barocci, for instance, or Guido Reni, Sassoferrato, Murillo, or Carlo Dolci. I suspect that a sociological survey might reveal that the current admirers of these painters (but not, of course, of El Greco) could be divided into three groups: the faithful who frequent the kind of Catholic souvenir shop associated with the church of Saint Sulpice in Paris and who have remained relatively unaffected by changing tastes; the cultivated visitor to museums and exhibitions who finds them sentimental but admires their painterly quality; and the art historian who is inclined to adopt a neo-Wildean credo that sentiment is as irrelevant to good or bad painting as morality is to literature.

There are pictures by Zurbarán—Young Virgin Praying at the Metropolitan Museum, for instance—that might be capable of finding admirers in all three groups; but this is not a reason for endorsing Jonathan Brown’s claim that he seems to “fit the requirements of the modern aesthetic”—a flattering tribute to current taste, now almost obligatory in art books, of the kind that writers in totalitarian countries are required to pay to the prevailing ideology. Of all the artists I can think of, the quiet, sometimes tense, sometimes seductive, but always reticent Zurbarán seems to me to bear the least relation to any modern aesthetic. Fortunately Professor Brown at once dismisses this doubtful homage with the caution that “it should be remembered that his paintings were produced by a man firmly rooted in the traditions of his time and place, by a man who continually sought to express the religious convictions of his contemporaries in the aesthetic language of the day.”

Professor Brown’s comments on the career and pictures of this extraordinarily elusive artist are beautifully sensitive and revealing; and he feels sufficiently sure of Zurbarán’s true qualities to base his criticisms not just on attributions, workshop participation, and so on, but on the success or failure with which he met his varied commissions. Without resorting to jargon, Brown analyzes the pictures with minute and loving care, avoiding—like Zurbarán himself—both the banal and the hysterical in order to explain how this artist mysteriously succeeds in raising the most prosaic of compositions, or individual parts of a composition, to the realm of poetry while almost never being ostensibly “poetic.” Nothing is harder to describe than this deeply expressive but anti-expressionist art, and it would be hard to imagine it better done than in this sober and subtle book.

Many instances of his approach could be given, but it may be worth singling out his short and precise discussion of that “sacred trompel’oeil,” The Veil of Saint Veronica in Stockholm—a subject treated earlier by El Greco and of the very kind least likely to appeal to the cultivated art lover postulated above:

Christ’s face is painted faintly with light yellow and brown tones that make it appear to dissolve into the cloth. It has the fugitive quality of a face whose transfer has been miraculously effected with an ink of blood and water, and marks a great advance over earlier versions where it was rendered in sharp, clear detail. Thus Zurbarán has spectacularly realized the divine relic by following accepted Baroque illusionistic conventions. But he has not sacrificed dignity for realism. By giving the cloth a nearly symmetrical form, and by making a gablelike fold over the face of Christ, he has subtly provided a dignified setting for the holy image.

I have quoted this paragraph in full because José Gudiol is confronted by analogous problems in his study of Velázquez—the most notoriously difficult of artists to discuss, as he is the easiest to admire; while the comparative disappointment of Gudiol’s book highlights some of the special merits of Brown’s monograph on Zurbarán. Gudiol deserves, and will surely get, every sympathy from anyone who has ever tried to write about The Lady with a Fan in the Wallace Collection in London, but I cannot feel that observations such as this have much value: “It is hard to say just why the lady’s very natural attitude and the fairly warm range of colors find in the asymmetry of the composition a factor of subtle compensation that endows the image with a latent dynamism and a certain reserve. This observation of mine may be mere hindsight, but the fact is that in perfect portraits like this one every element has its meaning and its function, whether it be a tonal relationship or a rather unusual method of composition….”

In other respects also Gudiol’s Velázquez is not a very satisfactory book: in its attempt to list all the works, it reverses the perhaps excessively “restrictionist” catalogues of some recent scholars to such an extent that it includes a number of very peculiar pictures indeed—if we can judge them fairly from the not always adequate illustrations. And was it really a good plan to try to blend into one “the artist’s biography, the analysis of his works and the general considerations arising out of his work” on the grounds that “there is a very close relationship between Velázquez’s life and work”? In all essential respects (apart from the well-documented travels and official duties) that life remains hermetically closed to us. Indeed, Gudiol is almost immediately forced to acknowledge just this. “We shall never know whether his lack of manifest emotionalism was that of a faith so integral and absolute that it rejected the least hint of spiritual ‘exaltation’ or whether, on the contrary, it denotes lack of interest in the content of the theme…. It might as well be admitted, here and now, that we know nothing of the painter’s ideology, of his opinions on any subject whatsoever….”

El Greco, Zurbarán, Velázquez—inevitably Goya follows hard on their heels. Inevitably, but regrettably. In the present climate of book production, the chances of a monograph being published on Murillo seem slight indeed. It would be hard to make much of a case for his having anticipated modern painting or appealing to the modern aesthetic or even expressing the Spanish soul. But anyone who has ever looked at his finest pictures will have appreciated their quality, so infinitely superior and so much more variegated than the few late stereotypes which alone are reproduced from time to time and eagerly acquired from those little shops around Saint Sulpice. Yet Eleanor Sayre’s catalogue of what must have been a wonderful exhibition of Goya’s graphic work in Boston last year is so enthralling that it at once dispels any resentment at the limits imposed on our knowledge and understanding of Spanish art by the iron law of commercial considerations.

An astonishing exhibition of the many states of a group of late Rembrandt etchings which was held at the British Museum a few years ago showed how revealing such an approach (so often treated as a branch of expensive stamp collecting) can be for an understanding of the creative processes of a great and imaginative artist; and Miss Sayre and her colleagues have produced equally exciting results for Goya. Indeed, for any but very informed students of the material, the results of their enterprise are even more spectacular, since a notably high proportion of Goya’s prints were not published until after his death. This means that he had no control over the final appearance of some of his most vivid and memorable images, which are widely available only in sometimes unsatisfactory impressions.

A monumental catalogue by the late Tomás Harris recorded and analyzed the differences between these and the artist’s working proofs (often known only in unique examples worked over by Goya himself in black chalk). The Changing Image follows up the implications of these differences and allows us to understand them for ourselves through the plentiful use of admirably detailed illustrations. We can—to take one example among many—observe the artist constantly refining his plate of the savagely ironical Charity (from The Disasters of War) to intensify contrasts between light and dark, and to give greater precision to the brutalized expressions of the villagers whom we see as they fling into a rough pit the naked corpses of those who had been their friends and neighbors. Goya’s intention (partly blurred in the posthumous impression of 1863) is—according to Miss Sayre—to emphasize that “the significant havoc of war was not death but the terrible changes wrought upon the living.”

One purpose of the book is, indeed, to stress Goya’s role as a man of the Enlightenment—a great deal of sensitively chosen complementary material, such as frontispieces for the works of Rousseau set out alongside drawings and impressions of the great Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, is used to buttress the argument—and thus what is ostensibly a catalogue on a limited theme turns into a stimulating, if necessarily fragmented, introduction to an entire period and an entire range of imagery.

But—as we all know only too well—enlightened attitudes can be particularly difficult to sustain just when we need them most, in unenlightened times, and—as we also know only too well—the depiction of atrocities can have its own horrible and morbid fascination. It is not (to me) always entirely clear how much Goya himself was able to escape this fascination; sometimes, indeed, his greatest etchings seem to me to be about this fascination (just as, admittedly, some of the greatest writings of the Enlightenment seem to acknowledge the appeal of darkness). But anyone interested in this profoundly interesting and important problem will have to make use of the material so imaginatively presented by Miss Sayre. He will also want to look at the attractive book reproducing some marvelous drawings by Goya in American collections which is thoughtfully annotated by Hyatt Mayor.

This Issue

October 2, 1975