El Greco didn’t always paint tall, eerie, twisted figures. He wasn’t always so extravagant.
It took him many years to make paintings his own way, to find that way.
In Crete, where he was from, he did traditional religious pictures. “An angel we do like this,” his masters told him. “And a Virgin is painted this way. You’re getting the hang of it.”
Adoration of the Magi of El Greco (1565-1567) (public domain photo)
Dormizione della Vergine (public domain photo)
El Greco couldn’t picture himself as just another icon painter-artisan and he left Crete for Italy. He needed to see the famous works of art he had heard so much about, meet the great artists, and be one of them.
From Titian and Tintoretto and Veronese he picked up some tricks he thought he could use to make his own paintings more interesting: twisting the human body into unusual postures; showing it with unusual perspectives; stretching it and making the head small in proportion to the body; inventing bright and unusual colors; putting in curious backgrounds.
But he didn’t come up with his own style.
His pictures looked a little like Titians, a little like Tintorettos, a little like Veroneses.
The Modena Triptych (back panels) (1568) (public domain photo)
The sad, the worrying truth, was that in Italy he had convinced almost no one that he was a great painter. He had gotten himself kicked out of the Farnese Palace for big-talking and criticizing untouchable masters like Michelangelo and Rafael.
He was a full thirty-six years old when he came to Spain. Spain was about his last chance. If he didn’t get a commission from the king or some rich nobles he might as well go back to Crete and polychrome angels. Fortunately he had a couple of letters of recommendation from an Italian painter who did believe in him, and a Spanish collector. The collector put him in touch with one of the most important men of Toledo, who gave El Greco his first big commission: the complete decoration—paintings, sculpture, architecture—of a new church in the convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo.
El Greco made an all-out effort to impress the people of Toledo and came up with this big Trinity painting:
The Trinity (1577) (public domain photo)
What? It doesn’t look like an El Greco? Aren’t those Giotto angels that whine, Veronese clouds, and a pseudo-Michelangelo Christ? Weren’t El Greco figures supposed to be long and slithering? Not yet. But there is something about the colors. What’s that bright, unexpected violet of the angel’s tunic?
El Greco may not have been very pleased himself but the patron was delighted. He convinced the board of the Cathedral to let El Greco do this work for them:
El Expolio (The Disrobing of Christ) , in the sacristy of the Toledo Cathedral (public domain photo)
El Greco had seen jeering, mocking crowds like this in the old Flemish masters or in Titian. Here he showed he could make one too, though they don’t yet seem particularly Greco-ized. There is the old Mannerist trick of the missing foreground. He has begun to monkey with the sky, making strange drapes or veils of clouds. Christ is still a Michelangelo Titan. The three Marias at the bottom of the painting, pretty as they are, could as well be by Tintoretto. The colors stand out. They are not descriptive but sentimental. Who can take his eyes off that great red robe?
Was El Greco happy with this? Many consider it his first great painting, though it doesn’t yet have the Greco traits that make him such a peculiar figure in art history. It is good painting and he comes halfway, or three-fourths. The composition is solid and there is enough realism (that suit of armor!) to please the traditionalists, no extravagance. It won him Toledo. Within a couple of years he had a big workshop going and lots of commissions.
Read about his biggest and most famous painting: the Burial of the Count of Orgaz in El Greco’s Best.
“Oh it’s nice and all,” he must have told his pretty young Spanish wife. “But that’s still not what I wanted to do.”