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Doménikos Theotokópoulos, el Greco (Candia, Crete 1541-1614 Toledo)
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Doménikos Theotokópoulos, el Greco (Candia, Crete 1541-1614 Toledo)

The Baptism of Christ

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, el Greco (Candia, Crete 1541-1614 Toledo)
The Baptism of Christ
oil with touches of gold on shaped-top panel, laid down onto panel and made up into a rectangle
9¼ x 7 1/8 in. (23.5 x 18.1 cm.)
In the family of the present owner, Spain, since the 19th Century.
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No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 17.5% will be added to the buyer's premium which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis

Lot Essay

This hitherto unrecorded panel was recently discovered in the collection of a Spanish family, where it has been since the mid-19th Century. It is a notable addition to the Italian period of El Greco's career and provides a fascinating insight into his working methods at this crucial moment in his artistic development.

Although there are no documents to prove it, Doménikos Theotokópoulos probably left his native Crete (then in the possession of the Venetian Republic) for Venice in the Spring or Summer of 1567. In Crete he had been a painter working in the Byzantine icon tradition and at least two signed works from this period survive (The Dormition of the Virgin, in the Holy Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin, Syros, and a Saint Luke painting the Virgin and Child, today in the Benaki Museum, Athens). A letter records El Greco in Venice on 18 August of the following year.

Probably soon after his arrival (see D. Davies, in the catalogue of the exhibition El Greco, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and The National Gallery, London, 2003-2004, p. 45), El Greco painted the so-called Modena Triptych (today in the Galleria Estense, Modena, see Fig. 1). In it he adapted 'Renaissance principles of representation to a small-scale triptych of a post-Byzantine design common in the Venetian empire' (loc. cit.). The Modena Triptych depicts, over six panel sides: The Adoration of the Shepherds, The Last Judgement, The Baptism of Christ, The Annunciation, a View of Mount Sinai, and Adam and Eve. It is to the compartment of the Baptism that the present Baptism closely relates, both in its shape- it has been later turned into a rectangle- and its composition.

There are nevertheless many significant differences between the two panels. Most notable of these are the way that in the present work the artist has moved the figure of the Baptist onto the same level as Christ changing the arm that holds up the cup, and diverting the former's gaze away from the Holy Spirit above so that he looks straight at Christ, thus providing a more direct relationship between the two main protagonists. By turning the right hand angel's pose further round towards the adjacent angel, El Greco has created a dialogue between these two figures and rendered the composition more compact as well as perhaps more elegant. The vibrant, more nervous brushwork in the present panel and the fact that pentimenti exist might indicate that it was a sketch made before the Modena panel. However, infra-red photography (Fig. 3) indicates that both the position of the head of the Baptist and that of the left-hand angel have been here modified away from those adopted in the Modena picture, thus suggesting the possibility that the present picture was executed afterwards. The infra-red photograph also highlights underdrawing which, with its bold contours, seems to correspond with the pen-drawing style of El Greco as used in his (somewhat later) drawings of Saint John the Baptist, and Saint John the Evangelist in a private collection (op. cit., p. 118-9, nos. 18-19).

Perhaps most striking of all is the very different palette employed by El Greco in this panel. A deeper and richer red replaces the lighter, more orange colour in the Baptist's mantle: a colour that is then repeated in the cloth that the angel will offer Christ to dry Himself with. Unlike the Modena Baptism, the sky (although dirty) in this panel offers bold streaks of blue, that are picked up in the more detailed mountainous background and echoed in light touches on the drapery of the right hand angel. Furthermore, lightly brushed-in figures that are absent in the Modena work, can be clearly made out in the background of this panel.

This choice of palette seems to be a very direct response to the work of the 16th-Century Venetian artists -and in particular Titian- under whose spell El Greco had found himself after arriving in Italy. The inclining pose of Christ might owe something to Titian's Baptism of circa 1515 (painted for the Venetian Giovanni Ram, and now in the Capitoline Museum, Rome), and the general use of trees as coulisses in an arched composition more than acknowledges his much copied Martyrdom of Saint Peter Martyr (destroyed).

If El Greco was responding directly to the work of the great Venetian painters, he also frequently turned to prints (of which he was a collector) for inspiration. As noted by Puppi ('Il soggiorno italiano del Greco', in Studies in the History of Art, XIII: El Greco: Italy and Spain, Washington, 1984, p. 140) and G. Dillon (El Greco of Crete, Municipality of Iraklion, 1995, pp. 229-49, and p. 233, fig. 4) the Veronese Titian follower, Battista del Moro's engraving of the Baptism of Christ (Fig. 4), shows a clear relationship with the Modena panel, and the present work. As well as employing a broadly similar composition framed by trees, El Greco also seems to be looking to del Moro's print for the attitude and pose of the Baptist, who (as in the present work, and unlike the Modena panel) is also brought to the same level as Christ. However, in the poses of the angels, the Modena picture follows the engraving more closely than this work.

This panel also ties in stylistically with other work from El Greco's Italian period. The small, rather pinched faces of the angels are similar, for example, to the faces of the Virgin and Angel in his Annunciation panel (26.7 x 20 cm.) in the Prado, while the spindly hands and facial type of Christ in the Entombment of Christ (National Gallery of Greece, Alexander Soutzos Museum, Athens) recall those of the same figure in this panel. In common with El Greco's normal working practice of reusing and developing over time certain figure types, a clear relationship can be discerned, for example, between the head of the right hand angel in this panel and that in the upper right corner of the National Gallery's signed Adoration of the Name of Jesus of the late 1570s. Similarly, the angels' heads in this panel clearly anticipate those of many of the angels in the Annunciation, of circa 1597-1600 in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, or those depicted in the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, dated to between 1608 and 1613 in the recent New York and London exhibition (op. cit., nos. 23, 40 and 55).

If the bold use of white highlights (here with touches of gold on some of the drapery) recalls his earliest Byzantine works (see above), the very use of such dynamic highlighting -whether on draperies or in the sky- was to remain one of the key elements in El Greco's work throughout his life, and one of his most powerful tools in creating the highly charged atmosphere of much of his art. This small panel is a scintillating example of this great artist's work at this most exciting, formative moment of his career.

Professor José Alvarez Lopera, having seen the picture in the original, will include this picture as fully autograph in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work. We are also grateful to Professor José Milicua (private written communication) and Professor Rafael Alonso for confirming the attribution on the basis of large transparencies and inspection of the original respectively. The former describes the picture as 'indublemente una obra del Greco, de gran interés...' Other scholars and academics from Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States who have worked on El Greco and his oeuvre have fully endorsed the attribution. We are grateful also to Professor David Davies who, noting the paucity of firm evidence in relation to the artist's early Italian period, considers this picture to be 'probably by El Greco' (private oral communication).

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