Courtyard of El Greco's House was painted during a critical moment in the artist's career and personal life. In 1959, the year this painting was created, Frankenthaler exhibited work in several prestigious exhibitions including Documenta in Kassel, the Sao Paulo Bienal and in the first Paris Biennale where she won first prize. On Easter Sunday of the previous year, 1958, Frankenthaler had married the painter Robert Motherwell. The two artists spent their honeymoon travelling through France and Spain, which included a visit to the home of El Greco from which she made studies for this painting.
John Elderfield has called the period of 1957-1959 "the most productive qualitatively of her career" for the vast quantity of highly accomplished works created during this time. This followed the groundbreaking creation of her painting Mountains and Sea in 1952 which she painted after a trip to Nova Scotia. This painting, was the dramatic result of the artist's new emphasis on size and scale and, most importantly, her technique of spilling thinned oil directly onto the raw canvas. Eugene Goossen, the curator of the Whitney show in 1969 and the original owner of Courtyard of El Greco's House, described the importance of Mountains and Sea, and its impact on the artist's work as follows:
"This staining had a dual result: the colors, having lost their glossy coating, floated into and away from the surface creating a nebulous but controllable space; at the same time, the spectator's awareness of the natural texture of the canvas deprived him of an extended sense of illusion. The canvas and its reality could not be forgotten or relegated merely to the role of a support. Thus the two-dimensionality of the conventional easel painting was both challenged and affirmed. There were two additional consequences of this staining method. Color could lose much of the materiality of the physical medium and associate itself directly with its airy essence. Moreover, since the raw canvas was palpably and visibly real and obviously absorbent, it became resolutely neutral, a no-man's land where the distance from the eye in terms of its non-color was a purely relative matter to be determined only by the colors forced into it" (E. C. Goossen, Helen Frankenthaler, Exh. Cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1969, p. 9).
Elderfield loosely classifies the works from the period following Mountains and Sea in three ways, using the terms "scenic remembrance, pictographic drawing and interior landscape pictures" (J. Elderfield, Frankenthaler, New York, 1989, pp. 103 and 137). Frankenthaler's paintings at this time, including Courtyard of El Greco's House, juxtapose abstract forms and vibrant colors against a white, raw canvas. The compositions, while consistently abstract, are often image or memory-based. The artist noted that her use of imagery, however, is "not a description of things, it's much more the symbol of the atmosphere of these things [through] drawing in a way that has meaning psychologically" (quoted in Ibid, p. 126). Goossen elaborated on this point, noting that "Landscape is a memory out of which she paints...It is also a landscape whose elements are composed of Frankenthaler's gestures..." (Ibid, p. 120).
Courtyard of El Greco's House is a masterwork from this period in the artist's career. The bold strokes of vibrant, earthy tones are evocative of the landscape in Altamira, Spain, yet not overtly representational. Goossen notes that "Beginning about the time of Courtyard of El Greco's House, the soaked areas are more carefully controlled. Their fluid shapes used more sparingly and more as designed forms capable of functioning without the assistance of the kind of linear integrations found in [an earlier work] Before the Caves, 1958" (Goossen, p. 12). The forms created by the poured paint interlock in a manner that reveals the artist's understanding of cubism; they simultaneously create and foreshorten the composition so that the colors themselves hover on the surface of the canvas, denying a perspectival view. A powerfully beautiful painting, Courtyard of El Greco's House creates an intimate space through a harmony of color.
The present work was included in Frankenthaler's first show at the André Emmerich Gallery in 1959, as well as in the 1962 show at Bennington College and the 1969 Whitney exhibition. It was the only 1959 painting selected for the Whitney show. Other paintings included in these seminal exhibitions include Mountains and Sea and Jacob's Ladder, now in the collections of the artist and the Museum of Modern Art, respectively.