El Greco at the National Gallery

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, May 2004 | Go to article overview

El Greco at the National Gallery


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


IN its latest exhibition the National Gallery has mounted, in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the most comprehensive display of El Greco's paintings since Le Greco: de la Crete a Tolede in Bordeaux in 1953. A particular success has been in bringing together four versions of The Cleansing of the Temple. For once, the National Gallery has drawn sparingly on its own paintings, perhaps because it has so few El Grecos, and even modestly left out its Agony in the Garden (arguably an autograph work) in favour of the version from Toledo (in Ohio, not Spain). It is a pity that some of the pictures shown in New York did not come to London. The catalogue ([pounds sterling]25.00 paperback) is the customary thick compendium, crammed with superfluous detail. An exhibition catalogue should not become an unsolicited monograph, perhaps unpublishable elsewhere. The authors should remember Lord Chesterfield's advice to his son: 'If you are asked what o'clock it is, tell it; but do not proclaim it hourly and unasked'. A useful and more pertinent account of the pictures themselves is handed out on admission to the exhibition.

In El Greco's gaunt schematic views of Toledo (Metropolitan Museum, New York, and Museo del Greco, Toledo) it is just possible to discern, above the ravine of the River Tagus, the tumbledown and now tumbled down Gothic manor-house where he rented an apartment of twenty-four rooms. They were ramshackle and cluttered, but with some attempt at luxury. His bed was canopied with crimson velvet. He entertained his friends, mostly priests, round a table of rare black walnut. His way of life was shabbily lavish, to the extent of employing musicians to play whilst he dined. He wore a sword, the symbol of his status as a gentleman, or caballero. His presumed self-portrait (Prado, Madrid) in about 1581, his fortieth year, presents a grandee in black broken only by his starched ruffled collar and cuffs and the gold chain and medallion, probably of a religious society, hanging from his narrow shoulders. His bony open hand is on his chest, and at his side is the gilt pommel of a Toledo blade. He has the soulful eyes which are de rigueur in El Greco's work.

When his grandson was born in 1604, his family of three had four servants, apart from his factotum and sole studio assistant, Francisco de Preboste. He may have been used to such muddled grandeur in Rome, where he lodged for two years in the garrets of the palace belonging to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, the patron for whom Titian twenty-five years earlier, in 1545, had painted his first Danae, giving her the features of the Cardinal's mistress, El Greco, to pay for the profusion which contrasts so pointedly with the severity of his art, exacted high prices, sometimes through litigation, for his pictures. Driven by the need for money, he sometimes painted so fast that the result, such as The Visitation at Dumberton Oaks House, Washington, is only nominally a representation: in a mist two hooded cloaks, with the tips of two pointed noses emerging from the hoods, billow together in front of the outline of a porch. In spite of such expedients, he often had to ask for payment in advance, and left many unpaid debts at his death.

It is likely that this wanderer (known as Domenikos Theotokopoulos in Crete, as Dominico Greco in Italy and Spain, and finally by the nicknames El Griego and El Greco), travelled for financial advancement. When he arrived in Rome his friend, the miniaturist Giulio Clovio had to find him free lodgings. As soon as he came to Spain he appealed for money to the Royal Almoner in Madrid, and his costly way of life led him into frequent borrowing. He left impoverished Crete for Italy, but found he could not compete with well-established painters in a buyers' market. At the Palazzo Farnese he met Luis de Castilla, son of the Dean of Toledo Cathedral, and himself Dean of Cuenca Cathedral, who became such a close friend that El Greco asked him to become the executor of his will. …

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