Why El Greco inspired so many great modern artists

Sebastian Smee

THE WASHINGTON POST – The idea that great art is timeless is a fine piece of rhetoric. But it’s demonstrably false. Art, like any object, exists within history. It becomes most interesting when it is most urgently contemporary. Great art either matters to you – to me, to us, right here, right now – or it doesn’t.

Recognising this, I’ve found, can be fruitful – and in unexpected ways. Far from lessening my curiosity about the past reception of art, it deepens my fascination. It makes me crave to know the ways in which the art in our museums felt contemporary (ie vital, a going concern, a solace, a stimulant) to other artists I love.

What different things – because they must have been different! – did Francis Bacon, John Singer Sargent and Édouard Manet get out of Velazquez? What did the Impressionists Berthe Morisot and Renoir see in the Rococo painters Watteau and Fragonard? What did Matisse extract from Giotto?

If you want to understand how an old master can, centuries later, become suddenly and urgently relevant, it’s fun to think about El Greco (1541-1614). Born Domenikos Theotokopoulos, El Greco came from Crete to Toledo, Spain, via Italy. A leading light of the Spanish Renaissance, he was the subject of a magnificent show I saw last year at the Grand Palais in Paris. Organised by the Kimbell Art Museum’s Guillaume Kientz, it arrived at the Art Institute of Chicago just as covid-19 shuttered the museum.

A pity: El Greco’s paintings could be useful to us now. Though their spaces are shallow, at times almost claustrophobic, they hold out the promise of deep compassion, a dark and watery-eyed mood that seems to flicker in and out, keyed to the pulse of life and its two constants: change and mortality.

‘A Boy Blowing on an Ember to Light a Candle (El Soplón)’ by El Greco. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

El Greco, as the name suggests, was an outsider. Ambitious, intelligent, as apparently mutable as the bodies he shaped, he began his career painting icons in the byzantine style. Upon leaving Crete (then under Venetian rule) for mainland Italy, he set himself the modest task of “correcting” Michelangelo (who had died three years earlier). He had harsh words, too, for Leonardo da Vinci.

It’s fair to say that El Greco sought to unite the colour and touch of Venetian-style oil painting with Michelangelo’s kinetic, questing, spirit-convulsed bodies in complex space. But then, that would be fair to say of many late-16th-Century painters – Tintoretto, for instance. It doesn’t tell us why El Greco looks so different from everyone else, or why he called out so urgently to artists in the late-19th and early-20th centuries.

“El Greco’s great merit,” wrote the Impressionist Mary Cassatt, in 1903, to her friend Louisine Havemeyer, “is that he was two centuries ahead of his time; that is why painters, Manet among them, thought so much of him.”

We know what Cassatt meant. But it is not “a great merit” to be “ahead of one’s time,” nor is it actually possible. No one believes that El Greco was a prophet, that he foresaw industrialisation, the invention of photography or the rise of modernity, and painted accordingly. Yet something about his work clearly spoke to artists living in those new circumstances. What was it?

Cassatt’s friend Edgar Degas was one of the earliest modern champions of El Greco. In the 1890s, he acquired two El Greco paintings for his collection (one is now in the National Gallery of Art, the other in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts). His friend Henri Rouart wrote to congratulate him on the purchase of the painting now in Boston. El Greco, Rouart said, was “incomparable, the most beautiful of all. … In terms of feeling and enveloping colour no one has taken it further.”

Unloved in Italy, El Greco settled in Toledo, Spain. And of course, the modern artist most famously under El Greco’s spell was himself a Spaniard: Pablo Picasso.

Without El Greco, Picasso’s early Blue and Rose periods are hard to imagine. Upon seeing Picasso’s work in Barcelona in 1900, one observer saw evidence of “a kind of inspired fever reminiscent of the best works of El Greco and Goya, the only indisputable masters or divinities for Picasso.” In 1919, another Picasso watcher, Roger Allard, observed that “the intertwined bodies in (Picasso’s) pictures of the Blue Period have the sickly, tortured air of El Greco figures.” And in his Picasso biography, John Richardson showed how El Greco’s Vision of Saint John (in the Metropolitan Museum of Art) played a major role in the conception of Picasso’s breakthrough masterpiece The Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Picasso himself said that what he most liked about El Greco’s work were the portraits, “all those gentlemen with pointed beards.” And yet El Greco’s influence on him went far deeper. Compare, for instance, Picasso’s famous Boy Leading a Horse, in the Museum of Modern Art, with El Greco’s Saint Martin and the Beggar, at the National Gallery. You can see connections in the attenuated forms, the shallow space, even the way the paint was applied. But it had to do, finally, with feeling: frailty, suffering, stripped-back vulnerability.

Many of El Greco’s best works ended up in American museums. The National Gallery has seven, and there are more paintings by him at the Phillips Collection, Dumbarton Oaks and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. New York, too, has great El Grecos, at the Metropolitan and the Frick Collection, and there are great examples of his work in Boston, Chicago, Worcester, Cleveland and Los Angeles, among other places.

Almost all of these paintings came to America in the early 20th Century. At that time, according to an article in the New York Times in 1912, “one collector after another falls under the spell of that fiery and unequaled genius.”

But collectors were only following the lead taken by artists. Among the most influential of these (in part because he painted many of their portraits) was John Singer Sargent. Sargent loved Spain and, as is well known, revered Diego Velazquez. But he had also been to Toledo and fallen in love with El Greco. It was on his advice that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, acquired its beautiful El Greco portrait of the monk Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino.