This arresting portrait of a gentleman is an exciting new addition to the corpus of portraits by El Greco. Boldly signed in Greek cursive, it is an intense character study, presumably of one of the artist’s close friends or patrons, executed with the impassioned, bravura brushwork and daring rejection of naturalism that led him to be championed as a precursor to modernism by artists such as Paul Cezanne, Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollack. El Greco portrays his subject bust-length and set against a simple gray background, creating an intimacy between the viewer and the sitter that is inherent to the best of El Greco’s portraits. Though the gentleman’s shoulders and head are set diagonal to the picture plane, he directs his eyes toward the viewer with cool confidence. The stillness of his pose is counterbalanced by the mesmerizing undulations of his ruff, executed in rapidly applied paint. His fashionable black doublet is only summarily painted, so that it almost blends into the background, creating a stark contrast to the brilliant white ruff and carefully-placed flourishes that highlight his hair and beard.
Portraiture became a critical avenue of artistic exploration as well as an essential source of income for El Greco following his troubled early 1580s commissions of The Disrobing of Christ (Toledo Cathedral) and The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice and the Theban Legion (Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Madrid). The first of these was the subject of a lawsuit about its iconography and value, and the second was rejected by King Philip II. Although these two most important Spanish patrons were no longer available to him, El Greco’s career flourished in Toledo, thanks to a dynamic group of scholars, writers, theologians and doctors, many of whom were from the nobility and had significant wealth. Together with the artist’s friends, this intellectually-minded elite was happy to support him by commissioning psychologically-insightful portraits such as the present lot, which El Greco could readily produce alongside his larger altarpiece commissions.
El Greco was born around 1541 in Crete, then a Venetian territory. After training there as an icon painter in the Byzantine tradition, he moved to Venice, where he became a disciple of Titian (though there is no evidence that he actually joined the great master’s workshop, as some have suggested) and an avid student of Veronese, Jacopo Bassano and especially the Mannerist art of Tintoretto, whose expressive treatment of subjects was to have a lasting impact. Rejecting the archaic conventions of Byzantine art, El Greco quickly mastered key aspects of Venetian Renaissance painting, including the predilection for glowing color and dazzling brushwork. Frustratingly, practically nothing is known about El Greco’s activity during his nearly three-year sojourn in the Serenissima. Keith Christiansen has suggested that the young Cretan likely supported himself by painting small-scale devotional works (K. Christiansen, 'El Greco in Italy’, in R. Long, ed., El Greco, ambition & defiance, exhibition catalogue, New Haven and London, 2020, p. 19). Yet surely portraiture was an important component of his output, since when El Greco arrived in Rome in 1570, the Croatian-born miniaturist Giulio Clovio recommended him to his patron Cardinal Alessandro Farnese as a portrait painter: 'There has arrived in Rome a young Candiot, a pupil [discepulo] of Titian, who in my opinion has a rare gift for painting; and among other things, he has done a portrait of himself which has astonished all these painters of Rome’ (quoted in D. Davis, 'El Greco’s Portraits: The Body Natural and the Body Politic’, in D. Davis, ed., El Greco, exhibition catalogue, London, 2003, p. 250).
El Greco’s Roman sojourn ultimately proved frustrating. Only a few portraits from this period survive, such as his astonishing full-length portrait of Vincenzo Anastagi (The Frick Collection, New York), but if these provide an indication of the type work he was producing, one can only surmise that his failure to succeed in the Eternal City was due to the artist’s arrogant personality and the prevailing conservative Roman tastes. Writing shortly after El Greco’s death, the medical doctor and connoisseur Giulio Mancini recounts that El Greco ultimately was forced to leave Rome after he angered the entire city. Responding to the renewed debates about the indecorous nature of the rampant nudity in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment for the Sistine Chapel, El Greco boasted that, should the frescoes be removed, he would happily paint their replacement for Pope Pius V – and that they would be just as good! Unsurprisingly, this declaration made him a social pariah in the Roman art world, and he soon left for Spain, settling in Toledo in 1577.
In Toledo, where the present portrait was likely painted, El Greco created some of his greatest visionary masterpieces, such as the celebrated View of Toledo (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and the monumental Burial of Count Orgaz, still preserved in the Church of Santo Tomé, Toledo, for which it was originally commissioned. Indeed, the sitter of our portrait would be quite at home as a spectator in this latter altarpiece. A similar pose may be found in El Greco’s Portrait of an artist (fig. 1; Museo de Bellas Artes, Seville), of about 1600-05, which is thought to be a portrait of El Greco’s son, Jorge Manuel Theotokopoulos. Stylistically, our portrait fits better with the artist’s work of the 1580s. El Greco’s signature is nearly a perfect match to the one that appears in his Portrait of an elderly gentleman from this period (fig. 2; Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid).
We are grateful to Dr. Guillaume Kientz for endorsing the attribution following firsthand inspection of the work and for suggesting that the portrait should be dated to the 1580s.