On this audio tour, experts guide you via deep looking through El Greco: Ambition and Defiance, providing insights into the Spanish patronage and legal systems, the role of an artist in Spanish Renaissance society, and the ongoing legacy of El Greco.
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Jena Carvana: Hi, I’m Jena Carvana.
Rebecca Long: And I’m Rebecca Long.
Jena Carvana: And we want to welcome you to El Greco: Ambition and Defiance. El Greco has been studied for centuries and a lot of different conclusions have been made that he was some sort of religious mystic, that he had some form of astigmatism and couldn’t see correctly. But I don’t think any of the studies of El Greco have really done justice to the artist that he was, the level of ambition that he had.
Rebecca Long: We’ve brought together works that will take you from the very beginning of El Greco’s career when he was an icon painter on Crete. We’ll look at his work in Italy when he’s studying in Venice and Rome. And then we’ll follow him on a journey searching for patronage from Rome to Spain and that’s where we’ll really see El Greco develop as an artist that we recognize today.
Jena Carvana: And as we go through this exhibition we will show you that El Greco was an artist who knew who he was, knew the type of art that he wanted to create and who fought to defend this art. So in our first stop we’ll meet you in Crete where El Greco begins his long career as an artist.
Rebecca Long: Jena, you’re basically the icon girl around here and I wonder if you wanted to explain to us what specifically we mean when we say that this is an example of an icon painting by El Greco.
Jena Carvana: An icon is basically a form of art that’s very common in association with the Orthodox Church. For the most part they’re devotional objects usually painted on panel that were believed to be almost a stand-in for the saint or the devotional scene that is depicted. For example, an icon of the Virgin Mary, if you’re praying to that, it’s almost as if you’re praying in front of the Virgin Mary herself.
Rebecca Long: It’s an intercessor.
Jena Carvana: Yeah, exactly.
Rebecca Long: The subject matter of the painting that we’re looking at is actually probably really a personal one for the artist. St. Luke was the patron saint of artists and that’s because, as the story goes, he was guided by a heavenly vision to paint a true portrait of what the Virgin Mary and Christ child looked like. We see an angel coming down from heaven and inspiring St. Luke to paint the painting within the painting. So it has a kind of meta-quality to it, a commentary on the importance of this saint for the artist, for El Greco. And the fact that El Greco signed the painting very prominently below the easel you get the sense of pride in this particular subject matter and in the highly refined final product that he was able to produce.
Jena Carvana: We know that by the time he was at least 23 years old El Greco had finished his apprenticeship which he would’ve undertaken as a child. We know from some documents that he was not necessarily creating things that were unique in terms of style, but they were valued fairly highly for comparable artists at the time. All of that basically goes to say that he’s doing fairly well as an icon artist. But there isn’t really an opportunity in Crete for him to go and make a name for himself. There’s other well-known artists at this time. Here’s this young kid coming onto the scene trying to do something great and really there’s just no opportunity for him to do that. So essentially he packs up his bags and moves off to Venice and starts learning how to work with different mediums and work in a different style. In the next painting we’re going to see we will find El Greco in Rome having spent his three years in Venice. He’s completely reinvented his style and is producing things that are absolutely astounding for the short amount of time that he’s really taken to learn to this new type of technique.
Rebecca Long: Jena, you mentioned the evolution in his style that we’d be seeing something completely different from that icon painting that we were just looking at and low and behold in the space of 10 years look how far he’s come as an artist.
Jena Carvana: And a lot of that comes from, obviously, him learning in Venice. But here we see him kind of soaking up the legacy of Michelangelo. When El Greco arrives in Rome, Michelangelo had already been dead for about six years, but he was still very relevant to patrons, to artists, to the things that were being created at this time.
Jena Carvana: We see El Greco reference see a pieta, a drawing of a pieta by Michelangelo. The figures supporting Christ, for example, are actually done in a similar way that Michelangelo had produced them in his work. However, Michelangelo had made them sort of like angelic, puti [ph?] small babies but El Greco had changed them into adult figures.
Rebecca Long: But that’s not to say that El Greco had a really straightforward approach to Michelangelo, and this is his difficult personality. Coming up we’ll see this again and again throughout his career. There’s this anecdote that a later biographer tells about El Greco and it’s hard to say whether or not it’s true, but it seems right. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel fresco of “The Last Judgment” includes a ton of nude figures so there was a lot of debate about whether or not that was an acceptable representation of the souls of the saved and that damned within the chapel that the Pope uses. And the anecdote about El Greco says that this young artist recently arrived in Rome knows nobody, offered to repaint Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” fresco in the Sistine Chapel and that didn’t go over well. And he ended up falling out with his patron Cardinal Farnese getting kicked out of his really posh living situation in the Palazzo Farnese and sort of having to move along in Rome. And, again, whether or not it’s true hard to say but we know that he had a complicated artistic relationship with the legacy of Michelangelo.
Jena Carvana: Being in the Farnese Palace did work in his advantage, though. He sort of shook that tree of contacts and ultimately that led him to Spain and his first two major commissions one of which we’ll see a smaller version of on our next stop.
Jena Carvana: So the work we’re looking at right now is a later replica of one of El Greco’s first major commissions in Spain, in Toledo Spain specifically where he would establish himself as an artist, establish a workshop, and remain for the rest of his life. The commission that ultimately brought El Greco to Toledo was this painting of “The Disrobing of Christ” for the Toledo Cathedral which was the seat of the Spanish church and therefore the most powerful Cathedral in Spain.
Jena Carvana: When the Cathedral saw the completed work they weren’t completely satisfied with some of the elements. For example, some of the heads are higher than that of Christ, as you can see in this later version here. Rebecca mentioned in regards to the nudity in the Sistine Chapel, here one of the concerns of the church was Christ, first and foremost, being the focus of the work but then also the structure of the hierarchy. Christ is the most important figure and should therefore be highlighted.
Rebecca Long: And it’s the first example that we see of El Greco getting into an actual legal battle over the payment for his works. And this had to do both with his stubbornness and also with the system that was in place for how artists were paid in Spain which was very disadvantageous to the artist and actually favored the patron.
Rebecca Long: The system that was set up was that each of the parties involved the patron and the artist appointed an assessor. They were each supposed to say what they thought the painting was worth. Theoretically, that was supposed to be the same number. Of course, it never worked out that way. This was a real disadvantage for the artist because the entire time that this discussion, this legal battle are going on, the artist isn’t being paid for his work. This was a system that was unique to Spain and El Greco having been recently in Italy for a decade and having seen the way that artists were treated there which was, needless to say, at a slightly more respected level he really resisted this. And so we will see across the course of his 35 year career in Spain time and again these battles over what the value of the painting was.
Rebecca Long: We were just discussing the legal battles that El Greco had beginning with his commission for the Cathedral for the Disrobing of Christ, and they would happen continuously throughout his career for different private commissions where he would have a dispute with the patron over payment above all. Because he still needed to maintain a workshop and maintain a career and bring money in while he was engaged in these battles, he turned to the private market.
Jena Carvana: So this private Toledan market consisted of scholars, other artists in some cases, lawyers, clergymen, who purchased these works from El Greco’s workshop to put in their homes in private family chapels, in private oratories. But here to really speak on that more is Richard Kagan.
Richard Kagan: Okay. My name is Richard Kagan. I am a Professor Emeritus at Johns Hopkins University. These chapels were basically established so that families could have private burial space and also a place where priests would sing masses, and Saint Francis was a very important 13th-century saint. He was the preferred subject of many of these devotional paintings because he was known to be able to reduce the time of souls in purgatory. People understood what an El Greco was. He had a style that set him apart from his contemporaries and competitors. Individuals who did not necessarily know El Greco personally could recognize his particular style. He had a brand, so to speak, and so it’s like going out and getting a Louis Vuitton or a Gucci. Somebody walks into your oratory, your funerary chapel, and says, "My, oh, look, I can see that painting by De Medico, the famous Greek of Toledo."
Jena Carvana: El Greco didn’t only create these devotional images for this clientele. Our next stop we will see a room full of portraits that he’s created for these Toledan clients, and the one that we’ll be discussing will both speak to El Greco as a portrait artist, but also his beliefs as to the status of an artist.
Rebecca Long: The portrait that we’re looking at here is a portrait of one of El Greco’s friends— acquaintances. We don’t know exactly how they knew each other, but they certainly moved in the same circles, the artistic circles around the royal court for which Pompeo worked. He was the great intellectual, a collector. He had a large library. He owned a manuscript by Leonardo di Vinci, for example. So, really the kind of person, the gentleman artist, that El Greco would have emulated.
Jena Carvana: To learn more about this portrait of El Greco’s possible friend, acquaintance, Pompeo Leoni, we’re going to turn to our friend Kelly Di Dio.
Kelly Di Dio: Yep. This is Kelly Di Dio. I am a professor of art history at the University of Vermont.
Kelly Di Dio: I certainly think it’s a political move on El Greco’s part to get to know Pompeo Leoni and be friends with him in any way that he could. Pompeo at this point, by the time El Greco gets there, has been named the sculpture to Philip the Second, who, obviously, El Greco is trying to cultivate a relationship with. We see Pompeo depicted here in proximity to the king. I mean, in this case, it’s sort of teased at. He’s making a portrait of the king and the access— the physical access to the king is implied by that. It’s that proximity and that relationship that we know that El Greco was really craving and that, ultimately, didn’t work out for him. What I think is really interesting about the portrait of Pompeo is that in the way that he’s dressed, in what looks like black velvet with this white ruff collar, is totally unrealistic for how sculptors would be dressed to actually be sculpting something, I mean, particularly in marble. Super messy, lots of dust. Clearly, this is a completely artificial moment that we’re seeing depicted. It’s all about this construct of the idea that it took a certain level of learning and thought and study in order to perform as an artist.
Jena Carvana: In our next stop, we’re going to go back to El Greco as an entrepreneur and take a look at the structure and function of his workshop.
Rebecca Long: Here, we see in the Feast in the House of Simon a work produced by El Greco’s workshop later in his career, between about 1608 and 1614. El Greco at this point is in his late sixties, early seventies, and is really mass producing a lot of larger commissions and also these smaller works for his clientele. He had expanded his workshop to include several rooms. So, here were a lot of people working under him, sort of imitating this now famous style that he had developed.
Jena Carvana: The notion of a workshop in this period is even if someone else is working on it, it comes from the brand. The initial design is his, and then the workshop assistants will come in and fill in the details. And then, often, El Greco will come back in at the end and finish off some of the more important parts, so faces, hands, that kind of thing. And you can see an architectural background here that looks unlike any other background or painted architecture that El Greco made that we know of, another sign that perhaps a studio assistant is at work on there.
Rebecca Long: Even though El Greco had this large studio and a lot of people working under him, there’s not really a school of El Greco. Right? El Greco dies in 1614 and his son sort of takes over the workshop. But no one really is creating works in his style, for the most part.
Jena Carvana: Not only this production of these works in this style fades or ceases after his death, the taste for them really fell off as well in Toledo and elsewhere in Spain. And that taste and appreciation for the artist doesn’t really reemerge until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. A generation of scholars and writers and, above all, artists in those years rediscovered him and sort of saved him from obscurity.
Jena Carvana: And on our next, and final, stop, we’re going to hear about some of the artists who took an interest in El Greco centuries later and used him as inspiration in their own works.
Jena Carvana: So the last stop on our tour is part of El Greco’s very last commission. "The Vision of Saint John" was commissioned for the Hospital Tavera, but unfortunately El Greco died before he was able to complete the commission as a whole and this painting specifically.
Rebecca Long: Even in an unfinished state I think we can see what was so appealing about this painting, in particular to artists early in the 20th century who were working on the edges of sort of acceptable artistic society, were quite avant-garde themselves.
Caitlin Haskell: There were many artists who were interested in El Greco’s work. Picasso is one of the few who we can say like he actually saw these works in person. He saw "The Vision of Saint John" when it was owned by one of his friends, another Spanish artist by the name of Zuloaga, but, I mean, he was far from alone in thinking that El Greco, that his works were sort of embodying things that modern artists would be interested in as well. You know you see a painting by El Greco, the style of one individual is paramount, right, you get a really strong sort of subjective viewpoint, you’ve got elongated figures, you’ve got colors that are doing really interesting things, and you’ve got this surplus of emotion and expression, and those are things that 20th-century painters are going to be very interested in.
Rebecca Long: I would say one of the main takeaways is certainly that El Greco knew who he was or at least who he wanted to be as an artist, but to get there he had to maneuver through payments and systems and patronage and deal with clientele and figure out how to operate a workshop. So he took all these steps to kind of get to that point, and I think he hasn’t been evaluated in the sort of just manner that he really deserves.
Jena Carvana: There’s something very modern or very contemporary even about the struggles that he went through in his career and his personality. We know a lot more about El Greco than we do other artists of the period thanks to all the records of the trials and lawsuits and everything else, but we really have a sense of him as a person and of what he wanted for his career, and they’re the same basic struggles that anyone who’s trying to make it as a artist faces even though it was 400 years ago.