El Greco got his painter’s license already back in Crete when he was a young man. Then he travelled to Italy and worked beside masters such as Tintoretto and Titian.
Yet he was a full thirty-six years old by the time he came to Spain and he hadn’t painted any really extraordinary picture.
Actually, there WAS one. This portrait:
Portrait of his friend Giulio Clovio
It was just this man who believed in El Greco and put him in touch with some important people in Spain. Often, when you are good at something, you don’t make a fuss about it, even to yourself. El Greco preferred to do imaginary scenes and twisted his brain to come up with original ideas for them. Portraits he just let come out as they might. But they came out very well.
He painted this one of the beautiful girl he met just after coming to Madrid.
Jerónima de las Cuevas
“Here,” he told her with a kiss. “I thought you’d like this ermine stole.” Jerónima became the mother of his son Jorge Manuel.
El Greco set himself up in Toledo, where he received important commissions for churches and convents. He worked hard on those and meanwhile satisfied his patrons with their portraits. One of his most famous is this Knight with His Hand on His Breast, now in the Prado Museum of Madrid:
This pretty Virgin Mary, now in a palace of Toledo, might as well be a portrait:
In his most ambitious painting, the Burial of the Count of Orgaz, he included twenty of them. Faces like this one of the parish priest:
And that of his little boy, Jorge Manuel :
Cardinal Niño de Guevara sat for him:
There is an exhibition of his works on now, Spring, 2009, in Toledo. To illustrate El Greco’s technique the organizers have put side-by-side a portrait by a competent contemporary painter (Coello) and El Greco’s copy of that portrait.
Why did El Greco copy a portrait? Couldn’t he have made the portrait directly from the sitter? No. The sitter was long dead. El Greco’s commission was to paint the man and he had to see how he looked from another painter’s portrait.
Diego de Covarrubias by Alonso Sánchez Coello, above , and El Greco, below.
Coello’s portrait (top) is good—excellent, in fact, but static. Greco’s rough technique, so apparently imprecise, makes the image more vibrant, the sitter more alive. His tired, old Covarrubias is worried or sentimental. Of course the expression he achieves may not have been characteristic of the man.
Here are the two portraits, complete: