Born in 1541 on the Greek island of Crete, Doménikos Theotokópoulos, known as El Greco, grew up in one of the few remaining outposts of the Greek Orthodox church that was still producing Byzantine art some 100 years after the fall of Constantinople. By the age of 22, El Greco had become a master of the local artists’ guild.
Around 1567 El Greco travelled to Venice, where he studied under the Italian master Titian. ‘In Italy he picked up the spirit of Venetian painting, which is all about luscious, rich, textured surfaces,’ explains art historian Jacky Klein. After a stint in Rome, El Greco’s work also adopted the twisting figures and unusual perspectives associated with the contemporary Mannerist style. But the Greek artist could never shake his reputation as a foreigner.
El Greco sailed for Madrid in 1576, seeking the patronage of King Phillip II of Spain. Failing to find work, he left for Toledo, the country’s religious capital. There he finally forged a career painting Catholic altar commissions, portraits of the aristocracy, and devotional aides.
In Toledo El Greco found a captive market for his portraits of Saint Francis (1181-1226), patron saint of the city that boasted no fewer than seven Franciscan convents and three Franciscan friaries. In 1606, the business-savvy artist even commissioned his pupil, Diego de Astor, to make an engraving of one of his Saint Francis paintings, for dissemination among potential purchasers.
Prior to El Greco, artists tended to depict Saint Francis at the moment of his stigmatisation. But El Greco took a different approach. In Saint Francis and Brother Leo in Meditation, El Greco showed the saint deep in contemplation at the entrance to a cave on Mount Alverna, alongside his faithful companion, Brother Leo.
The painting’s energy is focused on the skull in Francis’s hand: in 1548, a treatise by Jesuit founder Ignatius of Loyola had decreed the cranium central to contemplation. The symbol of the skull perhaps had a personal resonance for El Greco, too. ‘I paint because the spirits whisper madly inside my head,’ the artist once said.
‘All Old Master painters executed religious scenes of one sort or another,’ says Klein, ‘but El Greco was absolutely obsessed with spirituality.’ Saint Francis and Brother Leo in Meditation is ‘classic El Greco in every way’, the expert continues. ‘It has all the elements you would expect: the strange otherworldly light; wonderful quivering, vibrating brushwork; and a very strange, elongated form in Saint Francis.’
No fewer than 10 distinct compositions exist of El Greco’s celebrated Saint Francis paintings, three of which are now in the Art Institute of Chicago, The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco and the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Another was sold by Christie’s in 2010.
El Greco died in 1614, and within decades his work fell into obscurity. ‘He wasn’t always anywhere near as popular as he is today,’ Klein explains. ‘Because he was such an idiosyncratic artist, no one could really follow his style.’
It was only in the late 19th century that collectors and dealers took a new interest in him. ‘Everyone from Delacroix and Manet to Cézanne, Modigliani, Van Gogh, Picasso and Schiele’ were inspired by El Greco, Klein says. The artist Jean-François Millet even hung an El Greco painting above his bed.
The influence of El Greco’s contorted figures, bold palettes and emotional expressiveness on Impressionism, Cubism and abstraction cannot be underestimated. ‘The rediscovery of his work actually changed the course of modern painting,’ says Klein.
El Greco’s Saint Francis and Brother Leo in Meditation will be offered on 7 December at Christie’s in London from the Stanford Z. Rothschild, Jr. Collection, as part of Christie’s Classic Week.