23 May 2015

El Greco In New York

I would love to have seen the El Greco (1541–1614) paintings in New York. Not because I thought he was the finest artist in the history of humanity. But because views about his art have changed SO radically, both during his own life-time and since his death.

In the meantime, I have had to rely on The Guardian. Since El Greco was the toughest and trendiest artist of the late C16th-early C17th, we can probably understand the wild gyrations in his reputation. At his death in 1614 he was a well known painter of religious scenes and portraits. Then he fell into obscurity – too dark for his Baroque successors, too unnatural for the Enlightenment. It was only with the catastrophic Napoleonic occupation of Spain that El Greco’s works were carried off to Paris and his reputation el­ev­ated once again. Now he is being feted like a Spanish soccer star once again.

To commemorate the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco, a special collaboration brought together all ten of the artist’s paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection in New York, the finest outside the Museo del Prado in Madrid. Also displayed were six loans from the Hispanic Society of America. During the same period, New York’s Frick Collection exhibited its three El Greco pictures together for the first time.

Cardinal Nino de Guevara, Archbishop of Seville and and Inquisitor General
by El Greco, 1600
171 x 108 cms,
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, HO Havemeyer Collection.

So El Greco in New York, which finished in Feb 2015, was a mini-retrospective of the artist spanning almost all of his car­eer, from his arrival in Venice in 1567, his move to Rome in 1570 and his long residence in Toledo until his death in 1614. The list of paintings on display was as follows:

Christ Healing the Blind (Metrop)
Christ Carrying the Cross (Metrop)
Portrait of an Old Man (?self-portrait, Metrop)
A View of Toledo (Metrop)
Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara (Metrop)
Saint Jerome as a Scholar (Metrop)
The Vision of Saint John (Metrop)
Saint Andrew (Workshop of El Greco, (Metrop))
Adoration of the Shepherds (Metrop)
Adoration of the Shepherds (El Greco and Workshop, Metrop)
Pietà (Hispanic Society of America)
The Holy Family (Hispanic Society of America)
Portrait of a Man (miniature: Hispanic Society of America)
Saint Jerome as a Penitent (Hispanic Society of America)
Saint Luke (Hispanic Society of America)
Saint Francis (Hispanic Society of America)
Purification of the Temple (at The Frick Collection
Portraits of Vincenzo Anastagi (at The Frick Collection)
Portrait of St Jerome (at The Frick Collection).

I had a feeling that although El Greco was an artist whose emotional style openly expressed the passion of Counter-Reformation Spain, he was not a very socially skilled human being. He never bothered marrying his lady friend, the mother of his only child (b1578). And he seemed to spend his waking hours in the silence and sterile atmosphere of monasteries. But the Metropolitan exhibition suggests that he definitely not a social hermit. On the contrary, he ran a well-staffed studio – some of his assistants’ works were on view in the Met. In fact if he was in debt from time to time, it was thanks to his lavish lifestyle and constant social life.

So why didn’t he flourish in Italy, party-central for the late C16th? It seems ironical, or downright silly, that El Greco succeeded in conservative Toledo, rather than multicultural Venice or art-obsessed Rome.  Toledo gave him the freedom to abandon conventional represent­ation and to deform his figures in the way we find so modern. As the excellent museum-catalogue shows.

Saint Jerome as a Scholar (in the red robes of a cardinal)
by El Greco c1610
108 x 89 cm
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Two lectures series were held alongside the Met’s dis­play of El Greco’s works, to honour the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death. The first was El Greco at the Met, given by Keith Christiansen, Chair­man of European Paintings and Walter Liedtke, Curator of European Paintings. It dealt with the Metropolitan’s holdings of El Greco, from the artist’s early years in Venice to his last projects in Toledo.

The second, El Greco: Spirit and Paradox, was given Keith Christiansen who explored the notion of El Greco as a precursor to Modernism, the artist’s failures in Italy, and the anachronistically sublime painter he became in Spain.

There was also a Spanish musical ensemble presenting El Greco’s Toledo: Capella de Ministrers. The intimate programme included the most iconic music from his birth place of Crete as well as from his time in Venice and Rome, and concluded with music from the Spanish city of Toledo.


One question still remained for me. If, at the turn of the century, El Greco's work was almost unknown in the USA, how did some of his finest paintings get there? The director of the Metropolitan back in 1981 wrote that Louisine Havemeyer  did more than any other individual to create the interest in El Greco. Sugar magnates Mrs. Havemeyer and her husband Henry discovered his work about 1901, while on a trip to Spain, and were immediately attracted to "its intensity, its individuality, its freedom and its colour." Aided by the American Impressionist Mary Cassatt, Mrs. Havemeyer set out in pursuit of El Greco's paintings; her Memoirs provide a fascinating account of the successes and disappointments of the chase, as well as of the opportunities offered to collectors of her day. Louisine Havemeyer's 1929 bequest to the Metropolitan was vitally important in the American public's understanding of El Greco.


Train Man said...

I loved your course on The Golden Age of Spanish Art, esp Velasquez, murillo, Zurbaran, Leal. El Greco was a bit too early and his paintings were enormous.

Barbara Green said...

You mentioned Henry Frick's contribution to the city's exhibition, but did not mention his original collecting preferences. He seemed to love Spain and its artists, visiting a number of times. Before World War One stopped travel, Frick acquired three El Greco works for himself. "Men in Armor" showed El Greco's stunning full length military portraits during 2014.

Hels said...

Train Man

I agree with you. El Greco (1541–1614) came a full two generations before Velazquez (1599–1660) and the others.

But I would add the incomparable José de Ribera to the Golden Age, largely because of the influence of Caravaggio (1571–1610).

Hels said...


I didn't remember Frick's important contribution to the USA's buying up of Spanish Art early in the 20th century. Thank you.

And I didn't realise that the Frick Gallery had had the Men in Armor exhibition from August-October 2014.
Thus the Frick display actually pre-dated the El Greco in New York exhibition (Nov 2014-Feb 2015).

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Iconoclastic art like El Greco's has a special appeal because we want to analyze why it is important, and whether the quality comes from its oddity or from some important point of view that it represents. Some individual styles become more mainstream, but others fascinate because they seem to tell us about one artist, instead of (or in addition to) a general period of history.

Hels said...


I certainly understand some artists (or writers, composers, architects etc) being so radical at first, no-one will touch them with a barge pole. But then their styles become more mainstream, as you say, and from then on we think of them as iconic, at least for their era. For El Greco that style was something like Religious Passion meets Mannerism.

El Greco never had that certainty. Even in his own lifetime, he died in poverty and was buried in a communal plot.