Trained first in the Byzantine school of icon painting, in 1567 he went to Venice, where he is known to have studied under Titian; thereafter (1570–77) he painted in Rome. By late 1577, El Greco was established in Toledo and at work on the altar of the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. The center painting of this group, the Assumption, now in the Art Institute of Chicago, shows marked Italian influence. His next great works, El espolio de las vestiduras (cathedral, Toledo) and San Mauricio (Escorial) indicate a rapid development. The second was commissioned by Philip II, but he rejected it.
El Greco remained in Toledo, then an abandoned and rapidly dwindling capital whose proud and recalcitrant nobility were driven wholesale into the church as their only remaining vocation. He has left superb portraits of their ascetic faces, and in the foreground of his famous Burial of the Count Orgaz (Church of San Tomé, Toledo) it is they who are assembled at the funeral of the count, whose soul is seen ascending to Christ in the upper part of the painting. This masterpiece, painted in 1586, was followed by many others in which the artist, then mature, brought into play every resource of his dynamic art to express religious ecstasy. Flamelike lines, accentuated by vivid highlights, elongated and distorted figures, and full vibrant color contrasted with subtle grays all combine to produce a unique art.
Among his many great works of this period are the Baptism, Crucifixion, and Resurrection (Prado); a portrait of the inquisitor Cardinal Don Fernando Niño de Guevara (Metropolitan Mus.); two similar versions of St. Jerome (one in the National Gall., London; one in the Frick Coll., New York City); and a long series of paintings of St. Francis. Indeed, many of El Greco's paintings exist in multiple interpretations of the same subject, each with variations that range from the profound to the subtle. To his last period, a time of deepening mysticism, belong such works as the Assumption (Mus. of San Vicente Anejo, Toledo); Adoration and View of Toledo (Metropolitan Mus.); the Pentecost (Prado); a portrait of Hortensio Felix Paravicino (Mus. of Fine Arts, Boston); and the Laocoön (National Gall. of Art, Washington, D.C.).
In his own day his admirers seem to have been intellectuals, such as Fulvio Orsini, the lawyer Lancilotti, and Giulio Clovio. Paravicino, the court preacher, was his friend and apologist. Overshadowed by the more popular masterpieces of Velázquez and Murillo, his work became less and less known, especially outside Spain. At the end of the 19th cent. his paintings started to come under art critical scrutiny, and in the mid-20th cent. El Greco became widely celebrated, largely because his idiosyncratic and intensely expressionistic style (see expressionism), his flickering light and indeterminate space, and his bold and almost abstract use of paint appealed strongly to contemporary tastes. Splendid examples of his vast production exist in many European and American galleries and collections. He is best seen in Toledo, Madrid, and the Escorial. A museum has been devoted to his work in what is said to have been his home in Toledo.
Used with permission. The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. Copyright © 2001 Columbia University Press