A major exhibition charts the career of the artist known simply as El Greco (the Greek). Over 57 works from across the world are currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago that trace not only the development of his distinctive style but also the astounding ambition that drove him to relentlessly pursue success.
Born in Crete as Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541–1614), El Greco trained in the traditional manner of Byzantine icon painting. He moved to Venice in 1567 to learn a new artistic approach, absorbing developments in Venetian Renaissance painting through the lens of artists such as Titian and Tintoretto. The works El Greco painted during his time in Venice, however, reveal both his embrace of and struggles to fully adapt to this manner of painting.
Following this transformative period, El Greco went to Rome, probably in an attempt to attract patronage within the papal circle. There his acceptance into the elevated circle of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese brought a close association with the painter Giulio Clovio and the erudite historian and collector Fulvio Orsini. El Greco’s portraits, allegories, and religious paintings between 1570 and 1577 reflect these relationships as well as his complicated engagement with Michelangelo and other artistic luminaries of the 16th century.
With no major commissions in Rome, El Greco moved on to Spain in 1577. He quickly earned a major commission for the altarpiece for the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, the result being the monumental The Assumption of the Virgin (1577–79). Of a scale and format that he had never previously attempted, The Assumption became a showpiece for the artist as he attempted to mold a new career for himself in Spain.
Despite this success, El Greco was unable to secure commissions from the powerful authorities of Toledo. He turned instead to carving out a private clientele, finding enthusiastic patronage among the local intelligentsia and developing a flourishing career as a portraitist. Alongside paintings of theologians, writers, and attorneys, he was commissioned to decorate a series of private altars and family chapels.
Bringing El Greco’s career in Toledo full circle is his last major work, The Adoration of the Shepherds. From 1612 to 1614, he painted this altarpiece for his own tomb in Santo Domingo el Antiguo—the same church that housed his first great altarpiece.
Since El Greco’s death, writers, critics, and other observers have struggled with how and where to situate him. Was he a Byzantine icon painter transformed by the artistic revolution of the Italian Renaissance? A social climber desperately seeking noble patronage? A devout believer swept up by fervent mysticism? A proto-Modernist? Was he Greek, Italian, or Spanish? El Greco: Ambition and Defiance looks to his works themselves for answers.
By charting the development of his remarkable style across 57 artworks, including large-scale canvases and more intimate panel paintings and sculptures, the exhibition reveals El Greco as a socially and artistically ambitious striver who expected his immense talents to be appropriately acknowledged and rewarded.
El Greco: Ambition and Defiance runs at the Art Institute of Chicago until June 21, 2020. Details are here.
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