Greco is Castilian for "The Greek." Although El Greco spent most of his
life in the Toledo area of Spain, he was Greek by birth, always signing
his paintings in the Greek Byzantine way. An extremely pious, cultured
man, El Greco's very intense, spiritual works are famed for their
tortuously elongated figures. The most unusual painter in 16th-century
Europe, El Greco combined the strict Byzantine style of his homeland,
Greece, with influences received during his studies in Venice and the
medieval tradition of the country where he worked, Spain.
El Greco's dramatic and expressionistic style was met with puzzlement by his contemporaries but found appreciation in the 20th century. El Greco is regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism, while his personality and works were a source of inspiration for poets and writers.
El Greco has been characterized by modern scholars as an artist so individual that he belongs to no conventional school. El Greco is best known for tortuously elongated figures and often fantastic or phantasmagorical pigmentation, marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting
Domenicos Theotocopoulos, later called El Greco, the Greek, by the Spaniards, was born in Candia, on the island of Crete. Nothing is known of his parentage. He was trained as icon-maker in a monastery; he then went to Venice, soon after 1560, where Titian became his greatest mentor.
El Greco obtained very little influence from his master, but a certain influence of Bassano, Baroccio, Veronese, and Tintoretto could be felt in his paintings. El Greco combined Titian’s use of color and Tintoretto’s compositions of people and use of space. One such example, "Christ Healing the Blind Man" (shown below), is on display at the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, Germany.
In 1570, El Greco went first to Parma, then on to Rome where he met Michelangelo. El Greco entered the Roman painters' guild in September 1572. There the sculptural qualities of the work of Michelangelo inspired El Greco, as is evident in his Pietā and "Purification of the Temple." A study of Roman architecture also reinforced the stability of his compositions, which often include views of Roman Renaissance buildings. It is reported that during the pontificate of Pius V El Greco, by offering to repaint Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel, made himself unpopular in Rome and was obliged to move to Spain.
El Greco arrived in Toledo, the old capital and then a major center of artistic, intellectual, and religious life in 16th-century Spain. in 1577. El Greco stayed in Toledo until his death. His first Spanish commission was for the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. "The Assumption of the Virgin" is now on display at the Art Institute of Chicago. El Greco had based this on his old master, Titian's, Assumption but now showed that he was developing his own style. He used unusual colors, groupings and proportions for the figures.
Throughout the rest of El Greco’s career, these differences would become more pronounced. What El Greco really wanted was to secure the commission to fresco the walls of the newly built royal monastery-palace of El Escorial near Madrid, which had been completed in 1582. In an attempt to do this, he submitted several paintings to Philip II for approval but was denied the commission.
Perhaps one of El Greco’s great masterpieces, "The Burial of Count Orgaz", (shown here) is still on display in the Church of Santo Tomé in Toledo. He painted this in 1586, and it shows two of El Greco’s trademark features; the elongation of his figures, and also his ‘horror vacui’. This dread of unfilled spaces became even more evident in his later works.
These two characteristics are often associated with Mannerism, and it seems as though El Greco was influenced by this style, even after its popularity had faded.
One thing is clear from all of El Greco’s main works, and that was his intense spirituality. There is almost a mystic quality to many of them, and this increased until his death in 1614. El Greco did not have followers, and his art was forgotten for 300 years.
The re-discovery of his painting was a sensation; he became one of the most popular masters of the past, his painting roused the interest of collectors, artists, lovers of art and art historians. El Greco is now regarded as one of the most important representatives of European Mannerism. El Greco's liberation of form, light and color inspired artists such as Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock in their efforts to transform the art of painting of the 20th century.