El Greco, a painter who combines Greek tradition, Venetian colour and Roman design, developed an exceptional and varied artistic career in Crete, Venice, Rome and Toledo, the Spanish city where he was to work and die. Greco created a new world of religious images with his brushes and a highly individual dramatic and revolutionary style in depicting human and divine figures that are easily recognized as his today.
Born in the capital of Crete, at that time part of the Republic of Venice, from a prosperous, and probably, Orthodox Greek family, El Greco received his initial training as an icon painter within the post-Byzantine art tradition, assimilating some of Renaissance techniques later incorporated in some of his works. In 1563 he was already a "master" painter and in 1567 moved to Venice where he stayed until 1570. In the city of the Lagoon, he learned Titian's style not as one of his disciples but rather from outside of his workshop. After travelling through Italy (Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Parma, Firenze) in order to study, El Greco stayed in Rome until 1576 or 1577, where he first lodged at the Palazzo of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese. In 1572 he was asked to leave the Palazzo Farnese servant's quarters and joined, with right to set up shop, the Roman painter's association, La Academia di San Luca. He worked as a portraitist and also in small private religious projects. However, he was not especially successful and decided to emigrate.
The reasons that led El Greco to travel to Spain are not clear. His interest in entering the service of Philip II, participating in the decorative works of the Monasterio del Escorial, is mere speculation. In 1577, in Toledo, El Greco contracted his first documented works here with the Cathedral and the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo: The Espolio for the first and three altarpieces for the second, two of which are now exhibited in the Museo del Prado.
From that moment on, El Greco would remain in Toledo except for short journeys for business purposes. His life went on without any significant incidents except for the nine legal disputes he was involved in the beginning and end of his career, initiated by himself or by his clients and concerned the price of his work or to technical or iconographic claims.
In 1584 when his the Martyrdom of St. Maurice did not meet the approval of Philip II and the Escorial's congregation, El Greco enlarged his workshop and began to produce altarpieces, not only on canvas, for convents and city and archbishopric parish as well as works for private collectors.
In some of the latter works, El Greco tended to project highly innovative plural artistic compositions conceived as complex formal and visual systems, in which the altar's sculpture and architecture combined with his work and other surrounding paintings enshrined in walls and vaults. These compositions must have produced a fascinating effect; however it is difficult to find any of them in its original design.
He lived in considerable style -although he probably spent more than he earned from his work. Surrounded by Toledo's intellectuality, Greco died without leaving a will on the 7th of April, 1614. He left behind a corpus of works praised by the poets Luis de Góngora and Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino. He was admired by his colleagues for attempting the social recognition of the pictorial profession, but also critized by the most rigid Counter Reformists because of the formal and iconographic liberties he took. He was also famous in life for being extravagant, unconventional and paradoxical in his theoretical ideas and extremely personal style.
His art was repudiated during the Age of the Enlightenment and rediscovered by the Romantics and the 19th century French painters. In Spain, El Greco, previously considered a mere Greek disciple of Titian, was now recognized as "Spanish". The Generation of 98 saw him as the representation of the Spanish religious spirit of the Siglo de Oro and the artistic trends of the early 20th century regarded him as a precedent of their own expressionist doubts, their subjectivism contrary to rigid mechanical repetition of reality.
Today, the interpretation of El Greco's work is in a process of renewal and reflection. His relation between his religious spiritualism of the Carmelitas Descalzos Order and his identification with the Spanish values have been put in doubt on the basis of the Italianate and philosophical character of his art.
Fernando Marías, Curator of the Exhibition "The Greek of Toledo"