Artist - El Greco
( Originally Published 1925 )
LARGE or small, there has been a Greco cult ever since the Greek-Spanish painter died, April 7, 1614, but during the last decade it has grown into a species of worship. One hears the names of Velasquez and El Greco coupled. His profound influence on the greatest f the realists is blithely assumed, and for these worshippers, Ribera, Zurbaran, Murillo are hardly to be ranked with the painter of the Burial f the Count of 0rgaz. While this undiscriminating admiration may be deplored, there are reasons enough for the canonisation of El Greco in the church of art. Violent to exaggeration in composition, morbidly mystic, there are power and emotional quality revealed in his work; above all else he anticipated Velasquez in his use of cool gray tones, and as a pupil or at least a disciple of Titian he is, as his latest biographer, Senor Manuel B. Cossio, names him, "the last epigone of the Italian Renaissance," But of the man we know almost nothing.
We read his exhaustive study, a big book of over seven hundred pages fortified by a supplementary volume containing one hundred and ninety-three illustrations, poor reproductions of El Greco's accredited works (El Greco, por Manuel B. Cossio). Senor Cossio has so well accomplished his task that his book may be set down as definitive. A glance at the bibliography he compiled shows that not many writers on art have seen fit to pay particular attention to El Greco. A few Spaniards, Senor Beruete heading them; Max Boehm, Carl Justi (in his Diego Velasquez) ; Paul Lafond, William Ritter, Arthur Symons, William Stirling, Signor Venturi, Louis Viardot, Wyzewa, Havelock Ellis, and the inimitable Théophile Gautier whose Travels in Spain, though published in 184o, is, as Mr. Ellis truthfully remarks, still a storehouse of original exploration. But the Cossio work, naturally, tops them all. He is an adorer, though not fanatical, of his hero, and it is safe to assert that all that is known to-day of El Greco will be found in these pages. The origins of the painter, his visit to Italy, his arrival at Toledo, are described with references to original documents — few as they are.
Then follows a searching and vivid exposition of the pictures in Madrid, Toledo, and elsewhere, a technical and psychological analysis which dis-plays vast research, critical acumen, and the sixth sense of sympathy. No pictures, sketches, sculptures, or retablos escape Cossio. He considers El Greco in his relations to Velasquez and modern art. He has all the authorities at his tongue's tip; he views the man and artist from every angle.
"Domenico El Greco died at Toledo two years before his contemporary Cervantes," says Cossio. Domenicos Theotocopoulos was his original name, which was softened into Domenico Theotocopuli -which, no doubt proving too much of a tongue-twister for the Spaniards, was quickly superseded by a capital nickname, "The Greek." His birthplace was the island of Crete and his birth year between 1545 and 1550. Justi was the first to demonstrate his Cretan ancestry, which was corroborated in 1893 by Bikelas. In 1570, we learn through a letter written by Giulio Clovio to Cardinal Farnese, El Greco had astonished Roman artists by his skill in portraiture. He was said to be a pupil of Titian, on Clovio's authority. Why he went to Spain has not been discovered. He had a son, Jorge Manuel Theotocopuli, a sculptor and architect. Who the mother was history does not say. The painter took up his abode in Toledo and is not known to have left Spain thereafter. Pacheco visited him at Toledo and reported him to be as singular as his paintings and of an extravagant disposition. He was also called a wit and a philosopher. He wrote on painting, sculpture, and architecture, it is said. He made money; was, like most of his adopted countrymen, fond of litigation; lived well, loved music — and at his meals! — and that is all we may ever record of a busy life; for he painted many pictures, a careful enumeration of which makes Cossio's book valuable.
There are Grecos scattered over Europe and the two Americas. Madrid and Toledo boast of his best work, but as far as St. Petersburg and Bucharest he is represented. In the United States there are eleven examples, soon to be increased by Mr. Archer M. Huntington's recent acquisition from the Kann collection. In Boston at the Museum there is the portrait of Fray Paravicino, a brilliant picture. (The worthy monk wrote four sonnets in glorification of the painter, whom he calls "Divino Griego." Quoted in one of the Cossio appendices.) There is an Assumption of the Virgin in Chicago at the Art Institute, and an Apostle, belonging to Charles Deering. In Philadelphia Mr. " J. Widner" (read P. A. B. Widener) owns a St. Francis, and at the Metropolitan Museum, hanging in Gallery 24, there is The Adoration of the Shepherds, a characteristic specimen of Greco's last manner, and in excellent condition. The gallery of the late H. O. Havemeyer contains one of the celebrated portraits. of the Cardinal Inquisitor D. Fernando Nino de Guevara, painted during the second epoch, 1594 to 1604. It furnishes a frontispiece for the Cossio volume. The same dignitary was again painted, a variant, which Rudolph Kann owned, and now iii the possession of Mrs. Huntington. The cardinal's head is strong, intellectual, and his expression proud and cold. Mr. Frick, at a private club exhibition, showed his Greco, St. Jerome, a subject of which the painter was almost as fond as of St. Francis (of Assisi). The National Gallery, London, owns a St. Jerome, Madrid another. Mr. Frick's example belongs to the epoch of 1584 to 1594. Mr. Erich in New York possesses three pictures, St. Jerome, a portrait of St. Domingo de Guzman and a Deposition. El Greco is a painter admired by painters for his salt individualism. Zuloaga, the Spaniard, has several; Degas, two, the critic Duret, two, John S. Sargent, one - a St. Martin. Durand-Ruel once owned the Annunciation, but sold it to Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, and the Duveens in London possess a Disrobing of Christ. At the National Gallery there are two.
Gautier wrote that El Greco surpassed Monk Lewis and Mrs. Radcliffe in his pell-mell of horrors; "extravagant and bizarre" are the adjectives he employs (said of most painters whose style is unfamiliar or out of the beaten track). In the Baptism of Christ he finds a depraved energy, a maleficent puissance; but the ardent colours, the tonal vivacity, and the large, free handling excite the Frenchman's admiration. Justi avers that Greco's "craving for originality developed incredible mannerisms. In his portraits he has delineated the peculiar dignity of the Castilian hidalgos and the beauty of Toledan dames with a success attained by few." R. A. Stevenson devotes to him a paragraph in his Velasquez. Referring to the influence of El Greco upon the greater painter, he wrote: "While Greco certainly adopted a Spanish gravity of colouring, neither that nor his modelling was ever subtle or thoroughly natural. . . Velasquez ripened with age and practice; Greco was rather inclined to get rotten with facility." Mr. Ricketts says that " his pictures might at times have been painted by torchlight in a cell of the Inquisition." Richard Ford in his handbook of Spain does not mince words: "Greco was very unequal. . . . He was often more lengthy and extravagant than Fuseli, and as leaden as cholera morbus." Ritter speaks of his "symphonies in blue minor" (evidently imitating Gautier's poem, Symphony in White-Major). In Havelock Ellis's suggestive The Soul of Spain there is mention of Greco - see chapter Art of Spain. Ellis says : "In his more purely religious and supernatural scenes Greco was sometimes imaginative, but more often bizarre in design and disconcerting in his colouring with its insistence on chalky white, his violet shadows on pale faces, his love of green. [Mr. Ellis finds this "predilection for green" significant as anticipating one of the characteristics of the Spanish palette.] His distorted fever of movement -- the lean, twisted bodies, the frenzied, gesticulating arms, the mannerism of large calves that taper down to pointed toes — usually fails to convince us. But in the audacities of his colouring he revealed the possibilities of new harmonies, of higher, brighter, cooler keys." The Count Orgaz burial scene at Toledo Mr. Ellis does not rank among the world's great pictures.
There is often a depressing morbidity in Greco, Goya is sane and healthy by comparison. Greco's big church pieces are, full of religious sentiment, but enveloped in the fumes of nightmare. Cu-rictus it was that a stranger from Greece should have absorbed certain not particularly healthy, even sinister, Spanish traits and developed them to such a pitch of nervous intensity. As Arthur Symons says, his portraits "have all the brooding Spanish soul with its proud self-repression." Senor Cossio sums up in effect by declaring that Venice educated Greco in his art, Titian taught him technique; Tintoretto gave him his sense of dramatic form; Angelo his virility. But of the strong personality which assimilated these various influences there is no doubt when confronted with one of his canvases, every inch of which is signed El Greco.