In the 1500s, Doménikos Theotokópoulos, an artist of Greekorigins who had been born in Crete, set out on his own artistic path, leading away from the Renaissance and taking the first steps that others would follow to abstract art. El Greco, as he came to be called, moved to Toledo, Spain in 1577, leaving Rome and the influences of the Venetian art world behind him. He spent the rest of his life in Spain, dying there in 1614.
Unusual in His Day
One of the factors in El Greco’s move from Rome to Spain was that he had criticized Michelangelo, who was greatly respected in Rome. His opinions put him at odds with the art world there, making him less acceptable for commissions. In Spain, he was able to establish his own outlook, letting his more dramatic style have greater expression than the traditional styles of Italy put forward.
Mannerism as an Influence on El Greco
El Greco had been affected by the growth of Mannerism in the works of European artists. Where much art of the Renaissance dwelt on the effects of harmony and balance, Mannerism reached for something more than that static equilibrium. Mannerism in the visual arts brought more tension to compositions, allowing for the sensation of instability which heightened the dramatic effects of works of Mannerism. El Greco absorbed these theories, weaving them into his own work, creating his distinctive style.
His Outlook on Art
Many of El Greco’s contemporaries chose to return to conforming to the expectations of the traditional artistic sensibilities in Rome after dabbling in Mannerism. El Greco, however, embraced it instead. His works featured elongated forms, and colors that were less realistic. At one point, he declared, “I paint because the spirits whisper madly inside my head.” The intense emotional power of his works and their “unreal” effect led to him being considered a “painter of the spirit.”
His independence of outlook allowed him to welcome new artistic approaches. He tended to reject what the established expectation declared made for “proper art.” This made him unusual for the time, as virtually all other artists of the period chose to conform to the standard expectations. El Greco’s independence from those standards would have a powerful influence a few centuries later as various artists moved toward forms of abstract art.
Modern Abstract Art
One of the gifts from El Greco to generations of artists who followed him is his providing a model of an artist who was willing to step outside the traditional expectations and produce works that were filled with the energy and passion of the artist. By freeing himself from the expectations of formal, representational compositions, he laid the way toward abstract art.
The intellectual exploration that El Greco brought to his work inspired many artists in the 20th century. Picasso, Delacroix, and Manet have been among those who have been touched and influenced by El Greco’s works. Artist Diana Hobson has related that his “Storm over Toledo” specifically was what inspired her to pursue a career as an artist. Her “Ice Princess” carries an echo of his color and energy from the famous landscape painting. The energy and color used in her works carry the imaginative imprint of El Greco’s outlook on the arts.
“View of Toledo” by El Greco, 1596-1600. Located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York. Image included here under Fair Use Practices for instruction and information.
“Ice Princess” by Diana Hobson, 1990. Copyright Diana Hobson. Used by permission.