Biography of El Greco

After nearly three centuries of neglect, varied only by dispraise, the Cretan wanderer Domenico Theotocopuli has been reborn into fame. Artists particularly make a cult of him. Museums pay the prices of a Velasquez for his pictures, which only a generation ago passed for the product of a diseased mind. Criticism deals with him in the most serious way. We have the remarkable biography of Senor Cossio, the sensitive appreciation of MM. Bares and Lafond, and as well a convenient monograph by Messrs. Calvert and Hartley.

Note, however, that painters first made the fame of this great visionary. Unlike other revivals, the Greco cult has not been preached in partibus by the middlemen of art; it has grown among the studios of Paris and London, whence it has spread widely. Now, all popularity implies a preparedness in the public, but equally it implies a propagandist or a group of champions. We talk as if the vogue of painter, novelist, or playwright simply grew. Instead, it is made, perhaps, by a single seasonable word of one influential person. Mr. X, the present incumbent of the literary pontificate, tells Mesdames Y and Z over the ortolans that A’s first novel reveals genius. The fundamental fact of a popularity is always the same. Somebody feels an enthusiasm and tells somebody else. I often think how much more vivid would be the annals of art if we but knew the real fathers of the great enthusiasms. There was, perhaps still lives, an obscure individual who casually told Ruskin about Tintoretto. Somebody undoubtedly first mentioned Greco admiringly, and in recent years. I merely suggest that the studios began to hum with this new sensation about a dozen years ago when John Sargent, then planning the Christian subjects in the Boston Public Library, had returned from a prolonged visit to Spain.

But whether it was Mr. Sargent or another who first gave the impulse, somebody would have done it. We were ready for Greco. The rationalizing methods in art and letters seemed to have played out. Men had discovered that there was no salvation in the spots of Mallet, nor yet in the dots of Monet. The older realism of Courbet had run its course, with the Rougon-Macquart of Zola. After Taine and his methodology, the impressionism of Jules Lemaitre and Anatole France was giving the tone to criticism. In painting temperament was coming to be the most treasured quality. Too much of it there could not be. One yielded to the hieratic lusciousness of Gustave Moreau. The morbid precocities of Aubrey Beardsley were winning international repute. The wisest of dreamers, Puvis, was still active. Burne-Jones’s fairyland had not reached its ultimate contour. In letters, new intimations were coming from D’Annunzio, and from Hauptmann. Huysmans had invented a new and poignant form of confessional. Mallarme was just gone and unforgotten, so Verlaine. Truly, the demand for temperament had produced that commodity in abundance. Resurgent romanticism-a more feverish and disillusioned type than the old-required its own. And no painter of the past was more emphatically its own than the sombre Cretan who filled Toledo with visions of nightmare and ecstasy during the. years when Cervantes was writing Don Quixote.

The record of Greco’s life is scanty, yet on: the whole illuminating. We meet him first in a letter of the Croatian miniaturist, Giulio Clovio.. Writing in the late autumn of 1570,he begs Cardinal Farnese to give temporary lodging at Rome to an able young Candiot painter, a pupil of Titian. The cardinal presumably accorded a more substantial patron-age, for several of the earlier pictures are trace-able to the Farnese collection. What chance called Domenico to Toledo and the service of his Most Catholic Majesty we do not know. By 1577, however, the stranger had completed an important picture, “The Assumption,” now wandered to Chicago, for the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. Two years later he had completed for the cathedral the famous master-piece entitled “The Stripping of Christ” (“El Expolio”), and was engaged in a litigation over the pay. During the trial he declined to tell why he had come to Spain and, though he must have been at least four years already in Toledo, declared that he did not understand Spanish and requested the services of an interpreter. The incident tells that his life had been a solitary one. In 158o he received from Philip II a commission to paint for the chapel of the Escurial a “Martyrdom of St. Maurice.” This picture, the first that reveals the true Greco, was the subject of various disputes, and finally gave so little satisfaction that it was denied its position in the chapel and relegated to the chapter hall. “It satisfies few,” writes Father Siguenza in 1605, adding cautiously, “though they say it has great art, and that its author has much knowledge, and that excellent things can be seen from his hand.” Written only nine years before Greco’s death, and at the height of his fame, this comment suggests that plain people found his repute mysterious.

His own Toledo at least supported him loyally. The Toledo where Jew and heretic still roasted at the stake to the edification of Christian eyes and noses knew how to appreciate the flame-like ecstasy of his brush. For nearly forty years he labored there. Not merely painting, but sculpture and the designing of architectural altar-backs, enlisted his energies. Pacheco visited the old man in 1611 and reports him as of philosophical bent, a writer on art, an inventor of witty sayings. He adds the really important information that he saw clay models for every picture Greco had painted. This shows that the distorted and exaggerated anatomy of Greco’s figures was not due to careless improvisation, but was based on deliberate choice). He produced these formless, inarticulate saints quite as cool-headedly as Leighton ever did a classical composition or our own Brush a family group, steadying his brush like these later men by preliminary exercise with the clay. A generation after Greco’s death Giuseppe Martinez gathered up some enlightening residual gossip. Of the pictures he could say little good. They were extravagant beyond belief. The painter’s nature was as extravagant as his painting. Of the value of his works he held a vainglorious opinion. Declaring them beyond price, he pledged instead of selling them, and his patrons gladly advanced substantial sums on this security. “He earned many ducats, but spent them in too great pomp and display in his house, to the extent of keeping paid musicians to entertain him at meal-times.” For the rest, we learn that “he left; no wealth but two hundred unfinished paintings, that he was a famous architect, and very eloquent in his speeches.” Beyond these hints we know little. There was a wife somewhere in the background, and a son, Jorge Manuel, who lived to continue indifferently the tragic manner of his sire. To the end of his. life Greco signed his pictures in fine Greek characters, Dominikos Theotocopoulos. In 1614 he died,intestate, comforted by the sacraments, and was buried in Santo Domingo el Antiguo, where time has effaced his epitaph.

From various scattered intimations, it seems to me, we divine a personality. The contours perhaps are vague, as they are in Greco’s own creations, but, as in these, the emotional bias is unmistakable. An inordinate professional pride, a litigious bent, a dread of society, with a craving for luxury and suave sensations, a brooding philosophical disposition commanding eloquent words-here are the familiar traits of the superman. The profound melancholy that accompanied these capacities is written a hundred times with singularly unvarying lineaments in those portraits in which through the features of his patrons he celebrated the dignity of his own spleen. Pride, sensitiveness, inwardness-this equipment made him an ideal interpreter of the Spain of Philip II. They thought Greco mad, and perhaps they were partly right. No perfectly normal person could have lived himself so unreservedly into the religious ardors and ecstasies of the Spain of Teresa of Avila.

But the story of the man is better surmised from his works than from documents and notebooks. Born in Candia, his first impressions of painting, and perhaps his first practice of the art, must have been limited by the Byzantine decadence. Yet there were strange stirrings within the body of that death. The Greek painters who lived along the Venetian trade routes had in excellent prints the compositions of Tintoretto and Michelangelo. Within the hieratic limitations of gold background, prescribed color, and calligraphic modelling and drapery, some of them tried to emulate the grand style that they glimpsed from afar. No great pictures came of the endeavor. But I know few works more strangely piquant than certain of the sixteenth-century panels in which insular artists undertook to write back Michelangelo into the immemorial formulas of Byzantium. This was the art that first influenced Domenico, and, curiously enough, his own fully developed formula in Spain, with its contempt for reality and strong decorative intention, resembles more strikingly this perturbed form of Byzantinism than it does the Venetian painting in which he was actually schooled.

To have been a painter of repute in 1570, as Giulio Clovio assures us Greco was, implies several years of tutelage. Tintoretto, we are told, was the real model for the young painter, even if Titian was the titular master. This may be-the early Grecos have been easily confused with both Tintoretto and Bassano-but I fear the disclaimer rests upon the inveterate tendency to regard Titian chiefly as the author of “Sacred and Profane Love,” the “Man with the Glove,” the “Flora,” the “Assumption,” and the Pesaro Madonna. Nothing is stranger than the conspiracy of criticism to pass lightly over Titian’s mature and most characteristic work. As a matter of fact, by 1565, when, roughly speaking, we may suppose Greco came to Venice, Titian was passing into his ultimate tragic phase. The old patient, beautiful methods of building up a picture in successive over-paintings and glazings, he had largely disused in favor of more direct, drastic, and expressive methods. The old full harmonies of crimson, blue, green, and umber, had given way to a general sombre tonality, varied by rich color, sparsely applied, and by flashes of cold light athwart the darkness. When we think of the Titian that aided Greco, we must summon up, not the creator of the Giorgionesque poesies, but the painter of the “St. Jerome” of the Brera, the “Flagellation” of the Louvre, the equestrian “Charles V” of the Prado. Technically, and spiritually, the affinity between master and pupil is so close at this time that we need not emphasize extraneous influences.

What Greco did in the Venetian manner requires, however, but passing attention. His earliest work may be a “Last Supper,” owned by Mr. Charles Loeser, Florence. A similar replica is at Philadelphia in the Johnson collection. Here we find the careful, rather inexpressive work of a beginner. In “Christ Healing the Paralytic,” in the “Scourging of the Money Changers from the Temple,” pictures which exist in many versions, and in the “Adoration of the Kings” at Vienna, the real man begins to appear. If, on first glance, these canvases associate themselves with Titian, Tintoretto, and Bassano, a closer inspection reveals a more exaggerated elongation of the figures, notably small heads, a characteristic wildness in _expression, a studied contortion of pose, with keener passages of crimson and green, than the current Venetian practice tolerated. These traits are not insistent or sensational. Without the Toledo pictures, the slight peculiarities of these early works would probably escape us. We have lost Greco’s own portrait, which, Clovio assures us, excited the admiration of artistic Rome, but Naples still keeps the fine likeness of Clovio himself, a sound product of the Venetian school, and the odd allegory “Man Is Fire, Woman Tow.” The point to note in this not very admirable student work is that Greco had mastered the technic of Venice, and could readily have made of himself a second-rate Venetian master. Such perhaps might have been his lot, had not some chance unknown to us taken him to Spain, withdrawn him from the criticism of his peers and even from the sight of fine Italian painting.

In swarming, gray Toledo, set high within its river loop, still ruled by the savage, gloomy, or ecstatic passions of the Middle Ages, there had been no revival of learning, no liberation of the human spirit; the tolerant Moors them-selves had in the main merely provided material for religious fanaticism to work upon. Life was passed in the expectation of the miraculous. Hardly beyond the memory of the grandparents of very old people, St. Stephen and St. Augustine had come down from heaven to lay the pious count, Don Gonzalo Ruiz of Orgaz in his tomb in Santo Tome. The sense of sin was oppressively strong. But for the blood of Christ and the martyrs guaranteeing the future, life would be one long intolerable terror. Here was a world of mysticism that still lacked its painter, and then came the Greek to appall and ravish the eye.

Yet even in remote Toledo, Venice was not easily to be renounced. Greco’s first Spanish picture, the “Assumption of the Virgin,” is obviously based on Titian’s masterpiece. Its rhetorical quality is the same. What is new and original is the drastic half-realistic treatment of the heads of the apostles and those adult angels transcribed from magnificent Castilian women with whom, in rather Oriental fashion, Greco continued to people his heavens. They are in some fashion his most original and gracious contribution to art. Their lithe and powerful figures never suffer the distortions that his saints undergo. They are the elder sisters of Velasquez’s “Venus.” In many pictures they are the single element of materiality. The man who created them was undoubtedly a mystic, but at the bottom of his heart he assuredly was no ascetic. Indeed, one may say of the asceticism of Spain itself that it was like an anchorite who had by strange chance or instinctive design chosen his cave on the haunted steeps of Venusberg. The more famous “Stripping of Christ,” which is still in the Cathedral of Toledo, is again highly Venetian in its elements. All the forms, I think, even the overpraised three Marys, could be paralleled in the school of Titian. Remarkable in this picture is its visionary detachment. No locality is indicated or needed. A menacing throng presses out of the gloom about the patient figure of Christ. This restless mass is balanced by the quiet group of the Marys and the workman who bends statuesquely as he bores a hole in the cross. Threatening hands surge out into the torchlight; the bodies to which they belong shimmer uncertainly in the shadow. The scene is a densely peopled no man’s land, where light and darkness contend. It is inhabited not by palpable forms, but by passions. This renunciation of realistic setting is crucial for Greco. In his early pictures we find substantial architecture, and landscape; now simply portentous folk plucked from surrounding darkness by shafts of spectral light.

This formula brings Greco into strange associations. Spiritually, it allies him with Rembrandt, whose figures tend to become an incandescence within a luminous darkness. But here the chiaroscuro, while a potent means of _expression, remains as well a sound and effective means of representation. Rembrandt’s mystery is in essence a sublimated reality. In Greco, on the contrary, representation is soon left far behind. The chiaroscuro becomes a dissolvent, the figures flutter in the light like vapors, the limbs swell or bend as if composed of half-fused metal, the hands-frequently foreshortened-flicker like fronds blown in the wind. In the “St. Maurice”. of the Escurial and the “Entombment of the Count of Orgaz” we have merely the first symptoms of such deliquescence. In the “Adoration of the Shepherds” of the Metropolitan Museum the process is complete. The triumph of this method we find in the “Baptism” and “Resurrection” of the Prado, or, better yet, in the “Vision of St. John” in the Zuloaga collection.

Take the most accessible, if by no means the best, picture of this type, the “Adoration.” The wilful distortion of the figures, the reduction of the human form to so many shreds whipped by the wind, obeys, after all, an emotional law. The picture quivers with the ecstasy of worship. The wonder represented by a tiny Babe irradiating light has shaken the inner being of the Mother and the Shepherds. The painter has ventured to communicate this tremor in subtle arrangements of interpenetrating light and darkness and in calculated distortions of the figures. What the picture lacks, partly through repainting and fading, is the usual rich passages of foreground color and the full glamour of Greco’s ashen brilliancy.

In the “Vision at Patmos” (often misnamed “Sacred and Profane Love”) we find him most himself. The praying figure of the Beloved Disciple fills and crowds the left-hand side of the picture. The body is grotesquely elongated, the arms strained upward; the whole forms a sort of foreground caryatid for the frame. Above, opposite the rapt face, pale lights break through the gloom in blotches. In the background under the giant arm of the Seer, hover lightly the nude and flame-like forms of men and women. To the right infant angels rush down bearing the resurrection robes to a long figure poised like an Apollo, a strange pendant to the almost formless St. John. It is easy to say that the elongation of all the figures is extreme, that St. John, should he rise from his knees, would be at least fifteen heads high; but all these things are comparatively irrelevant to us, as they were to Greco himself. Imagine St. John reduced to approved proportions and set properly within the composition. Three-quarters of the effect of the picture would be gone immediately. That bleakly illuminated, half-human form, swaying up and across the scene like a tempest-tossed oak, is the true-nay, the only-symbol for the apocalyptic mood as Greco felt it. And, indeed, is not this savage formula-the flesh itself being remoulded by the blissful agony of revelation-far truer to the spirit of the book itself than the placid cartography of the Torcello mosaic workers or the inspired dramatizations of Durer ? In the _expression of religious mysticism, or, more accurately, of the gloomy fanaticism that the religious spirit assumed in Spain during the Catholic reaction, Greco has few rivals and no equal.

It was the element of excess in the man that made him famous. If he thought his pictures beyond price, it was because no others proclaimed so emphatically the tragic contest of heaven for the possession of the human soul, and is it not this quality in his painting that commends it to the modern artist ? The lam-bent movement of his compositions is an innovation and a piquant one. His world is interfused with a light all its own. At bottom, what most of the great technicians have created is a fashion of lighting. The sulphurous reek of Tintoretto, the serene blue of Veronese, the amber obscurity of Rembrandt, the flushed mother-of-pearl of Tiepolo, the steely irradiation of Velasquez-these are what painters chiefly prize. The effects of an artist are determined by his conception of light. His act of creation is merely a fiat lux-he illumines a thing seen with the inner eye. The worst thing we can say of him is that his eye is darkness, creates no light of its own, cravenly accepts an alien or prescribed luminosity. No such reproach lies against Greco. He fills his can-vases with a peculiar ashen radiance-Mr. Charles S. Ricketts, in his book on the Prado, has noted justly its charnel suggestion-that plays upon the underlying blackness in the most diverse fashion. The modulation of this pallor is Greco’s secret. It bursts violently above his figures like a moon searching the rifts in a cloud; it falls in palpable rays as from a reflector; it flickers through the dark corners of the picture, moves tenderly upon upturned faces, settles steadily upon outstretched and almost translucent fingers, is drunk up by masses of moss-green or glowing crimson stuff. Something theatrical there is in this, and some-thing immensely able. Because Greco wrought so craftily with light itself as if there were no intervening pigment, because he contrived such various effects out of a single formula-a mass of rich color set below a subtile weaving. of shadow with pallid light-because of these purely technical qualities Greco passes for a great artist in an age when light is king.

We have seen why the modern artist usually admires Greco, and, if the above analysis of his religious painting be correct, why, the man of taste cannot afford to dismiss him merely as a bad draftsman. Greco knew what he was about. The element of excess and self-hypnosis was deliberately cultivated. We cannot well like him in spite of it. It is of the essence of his art. We may then at least test ourselves by asking which pictures we like best, those in which the emotion has assumed strange yet not abnormal forms, or those in which the dissolvent process is complete-concretely, do you care most for the “Burial of the Count of Orgaz” and the”Martyrdom of St. Maurice,” or for the “Vision of St. John” and the various Baptisms ? And this is a very personal question, for it comes to saying: “Do you like him most when most himself, or when his passionate spirit is tempered by reflection on his theme and respect for the traditions of his craft ?” In simple frankness I am bound to say that I remember best and could least spare the “Burial of the Count of Orgaz.” That great and unforgetable picture seems to me to contain at their height all of Greco’s most valuable qualities.

St. Stephen and St. Augustine in magnificent vestments have come down from heaven to lay the body of good Don Gonzalo in its grave. It is the moment after their intervention. The celestial officiants bend tenderly over the mailed body, which lies, not stiff, like a corpse, but flexed in their arms, with the head falling sideways like that of one in a swoon. At the left one Capuchin friar points out the miracle to another. At the right a deacon gazes into the heavenly radiance above, while an unseeing priest continues to read the service for the dead. The gold embroideries of the saints and the priest-especially a superb moss-green mantle-afford a sonorous contrast with the bluish reflections of the armor and the silvery sheen of the deacon’s gauzy surplice. Between these flanking foreground figures stretches a row of solemn heads above white ruffs and black doublets-the mourners. Some gaze ecstatically into the opened heaven, their large eyeballs rolled high into cavernous sockets. Others, with a gentler sentiment, keep their eyes fixed on the dead man; a few maintain the impassive attitude of firm men yielding neither to grief nor surprise. The onlyovert indication of either emotion is three of those diaphanous hands waving flower-like be-fore the steady mass of black breasts and shoulders. I can conceive nothing more poignantly self-contained, nothing more magnificently correct, nothing more completely Spanish. Above this file of mourners, and seemingly poised on the flames of torches right and left in the background, is heaven itself occupying the semi-circular top of the great canvas. There are permitted the gestures forbidden to knightly folk here below. Balanced on clouds, Christ reaches down in benediction to the Virgin and the gaunt soul of the Count. Three strong winged, cloud-compelling angels attend the group. Through rifts are seen the congregations of the saved, ranged in their hieratic circles. The clouds are effulgent with the half-seen faces of the cherubim. All heads strain forward in adoration, the whole mass surges with light and motion. Certain overfine visitors wish the celestial part away as conventional. To me the contrast of the unmeasured joy and worship above, with the ceremonious, well-contained affliction below, is one of the most appealing and pathetic things in art. I can hardly imagine anything more truly felt or more superbly visualized.

Those persons who expect from art the stab that life itself deals in spiritual emergencies, will prefer Greco in his most undisciplined mood. I have no such expectation or desire. For me the sense of beauty admits all manner of excitement, but always an excitement contained within an enfolding serenity. Within limits many degrees of keen emotional experience are possible. But the moment the sheer excitement perturbs the serenity the impression of art is tottering; the moment it prevails the sensation is no longer of art at all. Contrariwise, when the excitement departs, the serenity becomes void of content–a complacency splendidly null. If this be true, the sense of beauty is akin to the feelings that we have at moments of greatest physical and mental efficiency. The orator riding the storm against hostile hearers knows the calm of throbbing nerves, and that, I take it, is the serenity of art. Thus every impression of art must end well in the sense of leaving us calmed and fortified-the meaning, I take it, of the much-discussed term of Aristotle, katharsis.

If we measure Greco by this standard, we shall find him, save in a very few pictures, wanting. Through him we rarely win to serenity of any sort. He dismisses us amazed and troubled. He is called a great portrait-painter. There could, I think, be no greater error, and yet few artists have painted more moving and impressive portraits. But these scores of likenesses come down to a single character. Always the haggard face, narrow forehead, uneasily rolling eye under sockets sharply arched -always an overt melancholy silently appealing for sympathy. The technical ability in many of these stern effigies is prodigious. Besides, these faces haunt one. Yet we remember merely a kind of composite of them all. A single ghost would fairly represent the portraiture of Greco, while the persons that one recalls casually from, say, Titian, Holbein, Velasquez, Bronzino, constitute a varied world. In exacting the last jot of wonder, Greco was something more or less than Spanish. It has frequently been said that he is more Spanish than the Spaniards, and in the sense of rejecting the reserve that veils their ardent emotional life this is justly observed. No one has expressed the ferocious ecstasy of Loyola’s Spain so completely. But no Spaniard, I take it, would regard so reckless an expo-sure as quite dignified. Zurbaran remains, after all, the finest and truest representative of the Spanish soul in post-Reformation travail.

I have suggested that there may have been in Greco some deliberate cultivation of the ecstatic mood, some rather conscious resort to self-hypnosis. The fact that in his old age he returned to his quieter and more concrete manner-in the lovely “St. Martin” of San Jose and the “Assumption” of San Vicente, for example-suggests that his wilder manner may have been not quite spontaneous. At any rate, he was not its victim. When it pleased him that his pictures should no longer recall the melting-pot they readily regained substance and stability. There probably was about him some such element of mystification as we find in a Salvator Rosa or a Whistler. We must take such people only a trifle more seriously than they take themselves. From a sardonic or a wilfully vehement person the finest art cannot come.

We must not expect it in Greco. But the art that misses equilibrium is by no means valueless. If we enhance ourselves most vitally through the art that has achieved a passionate serenity, we at least enrich our experience through the art which has missed its bounds. The cry of overstrung nerves and unsatisfied temperament is not uttered in vain when the sufferer is large enough to find in himself the aspiration or the agony of many men. Certain pedants have written as if the world would be better without its disorderly geniuses. There could, I think, be no sorer error. We need the unbalanced talents, the poetes maudits of every craft. They strew the passions that enrich a lordlier art than their own. They fight valiantly, a little at the expense of their fame, against the only unpardonable sins, stupidity and indifference. Greco should always be an honored name in this ill-destined company. Nay, at times, he escapes them, and hovers uncertainly near the elect body of the greatest artists.