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The Greek was what they called the painter in Toledo, Spain, and although he often signed his real name in full (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), it was in Greek characters which, we may imagine, few of his patrons could read. It was as if he wished to emphasize that he was a stranger in a strange land. He was a learned and music-loving man, born in Crete, a Venetian dependency, in 1541. Early in his life he was trained to be a maker of sacred images. He was schooled in Venice, perhaps with Titian and Tintoretto, and in Rome. There he studied the work of Michelangelo. From Michelangelo he learned the structure of the human body in art and the ways in which an artist can twist and alter that structure to create a pattern or evoke feelings and emotions. He learned so well that he could redesign limbs, torsos and heads, lengthening and spiritualizing them so that they seemed to belong less to earth than to heaven. From the great Venetians, Tintoretto and Titian, especially, he learned that color can arouse and sustain the most powerful emotional response as well as show what appears in nature.
It was once believed that El Greco suffered from astigmatism, but there are several portraits that were without the deliberate distortions of his religious works and were proof of his ability to portray the human realistically. One of the most important portraits he painted is a matter of interesting conjecture. There are those who believe it to be a portrait of Dona Jeronima de las Cuebas, El Greco's common-law wife who bore him a son, Jorge Manuel in 1578.
For the next twenty-seven years he lived in Toledo, the gray, granite city of ecstasy and martyrdom more Catholic than Rome. He executed several commissions for Philip II and in churches and cathedrals. The work of his later period has had a more profound influence on modern painting than any other master's. El Greco is an artist who has always been admired in his adopted Spain for his own strange individualized style of mingled aristocratic grace and etherealized religous ecstasy. It is only in later times of our tolerance for and understanding of the artistic value of deliberate distortion and unreality, that his genius has been recognized in other countries and that he has taken his proper place among the greatest names in the world's art. He died in 1614 in Toledo, Spain.
Written and compiled by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.
Metropolitan Museum of Art Miniatures, Masterpieces in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Great European Portraits
Masterpieces of Art, New York World's Fair 1940 Catalogue
The Standard Treasury of the World's Great Paintings
Master Paintings from the Phillips Collection