New Shows in DC, New York Celebrating El Greco

To mark the 400th anniversary of the death of El Greco (1541-1614), both the National Gallery of Art here in Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have just opened new exhibitions celebrating his life and work.  Although ethnically Greek and born on the island of Crete, El Greco – whose proper name was Doménikos Theotokópoulos – did the vast majority of his work in Spain, where he settled in his mid-30’s and spent the rest of his life.  His is quite a fascinating story of how a creative person’s output can completely change over time, based on the environment they work in.

In Manhattan, “El Greco in New York” runs from now until February 1st, and features 16 paintings by El Greco from the collections of both the Metropolitan Museum and the Hispanic Society of America. The show includes El Greco’s stunning “View of Toledo”, a landscape of his adopted city under storm clouds and lightning,which looks as though it could have been painted centuries later; his captivating portrait of the very intimidating  Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, whom you clearly did not want to tangle with; and two very different versions of a nocturnal “Adoration of the Shepherds”, showing the shepherds arriving at the stable with joy to meet the Christ Child.

Here in Washington, the National Gallery has mounted “El Greco: A 400th Anniversary Celebration” of the artist’s work, in collaboration with The Philips Collection, Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, and The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.  There are 10 paintings in the exhibition, which opened this past weekend and continues until February 16th.  Highlights include his charming, bright altarpiece of “St. Martin and the Beggar”, which is one of my favorites for showing the Roman soldier and martyr dressed in contemporary Spanish armor; the powerful, heavy contrasts of the “Repentant St. Peter” from The Philips; and the almost-abstract “Visitation” from Dumbarton Oaks, which I always make a point of seeing when I drop by the museum.

Unusually for an important artist of the late Renaissance, El Greco began his working life as an icon painter.   While there is always some room for individual expression in the creation of such works, the repetition of familiar and well-established elements is very important to that school of Christian art.  As a result, it makes it difficult for the average person to tell what century a particular icon was painted in, from simple observation.  El Greco might have remained content to stay in the tradition of icon painting, or “writing” as it is often referred to, but instead he decided to take a chance and go to Venice, which ruled Crete at the time.

Once he got to Italy, El Greco began to change radically as an artist.  From his work and studies in Venice and Rome, he absorbed what he observed in the late Renaissance and Mannerist art that was being created around him, so different from the Byzantine icons he himself had been trained to create. He was able to study with Titian, the last of the living great masters of the High Renaissance, explore the churches and palaces, and meet with a number of very important people.  He even communicated with Pope St. Pius V, offering to wipe out Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel and paint something more suitable, noting that the late Florentine master was a great sculptor who did not know how to paint very well (a sentiment I share.)

However most of El Greco’s greatest work even today is located in Spain, because that is where he moved after job opportunities in Italy were not working out as he had hoped. The Spanish imperial court was quite different from the flashy, humanist salons in Rome or Florence that El Greco had grown accustomed to.  Serious, stiff, and devoutly Catholic, the Spanish aristocracy when El Greco arrived was not interested in showing off.  They dressed almost exclusively in black most of the time, seeking to impress through sober formality rather than over-familiarity or flippancy, and saved their decoration for their churches.

As a result, El Greco’s art began to change once again.  Whereas previously, he mimicked the colors and light of the Italy he experienced as a young man, as he grew older and spent more and more time in the barren, desert-like plains and cities of central Spain, El Greco’s paintings gradually became darker, featuring stark outlines and contrasts, more elongation and distortion.  His style changed to the point that by the end of his life, some of his later pieces could very easily be mistaken for being works created by a Modern artist in the 20th century.

While you may not be able to get to Madrid or Toledo to see El Greco’s finest work, here in the United States we are fortunate to have about 4 dozen works by El Greco, many of them quite good, in collections around the country.  And now, even more fortunately for those in the Northeast Corridor, two of the best places to see his work are New York and DC.  With these anniversary exhibitions having just opened, you’ll be able to more closely observe his progression as a creative thinker for yourself.

"St. Martin and the Beggar" by El Greco (c. 1597) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

“St. Martin and the Beggar” by El Greco (c. 1597)
National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

A Selfie with Jesus: Religious Art or Political Propaganda?

If you could, would you ever take a selfie of you and Jesus?  If you did, would you do it for personal reasons? Or would you do it to try to manipulate others into thinking better of you?  These are questions which come to mind following the rediscovery of a work of art stolen by the Nazis during World War II, particularly as we get closer to election day here in the States.

Our story kicks off with this 16th century portrait of King Henri III of France, the recovery of which was announced yesterday. The painting had been in The Louvre in Paris, but went missing during World War II.  The story of how it was found, as detailed in the article, is quite a remarkable one, and demonstrates just how important the online community can be for finding lost works of art.

From the point of view of what the media presently refers to as “optics”, the idea of painting the portrait of your country’s leader at the foot of the Cross, when he lived centuries after the time of Christ, may seem particularly odd.  However if one takes a look at the rather calamitous times in which Henri reigned, one can see that the image serves a particular purpose.  Just as today a politician might go to a factory and roll up his shirtsleeves for a photo-op with the workers before slipping back into his limousine, so, too Henri needed to convince his kingdom that he was a good Catholic, albeit in a manner which may seem foreign to us today.

In Western art history there is a long-standing tradition of portraying contemporary persons who paid for a work of art alongside Biblical figures.  Art historians refer to these people as “donors”.  Sometimes the identity of a donor is well-known as a result of documentation or the existence of other known images of the person, but sometimes they remain anonymous, unknown to us a result of the passage of time and the loss of records.

Originally, most of these “donors” were sized much smaller than the holy person being portrayed, as we can see in this example from about 1386.  Over time however, the donor grew to be equal in size to the saintly individuals shown in the art.  Eventually the donor became part of the action, as it were, such as in being presented to Jesus Himself. Oftentimes this inclusion in the scene was meant to demonstrate the personal piety of the donor, but sometimes the donor was just as much – if not more – interested in propaganda as they were in prayer.

As it happens, Henri III himself was not very saintly in his personal life, even though he liked to put on a show of pious devotions.  He managed not only to offend many Protestants with his loose living, but to alienate his fellow Catholics to the point that they formed an armed league to dethrone him.  After having to flee Paris when the people turned on him, he tricked his chief rival, the fiercely Catholic and hugely popular Duke of Guise, as well as the Duke’s brother Cardinal Louis of Guise, Archbishop of Reims, into coming to see him at the Chateau of Blos; ironically, this is where the researcher who rediscovered the lost painting currently works.  Henri then had the two brothers murdered by the royal guards.

For his actions Henri was publicly condemned in Parliament but never tried.  He continued trying to mount a military campaign to take back the capital, plotting his return to power  by manipulating both potential Catholic and Protestant supporters to shore up his failing rule.  A year after assassinating the Duke and the Cardinal, Henri himself was assassinated by a fanatical Dominican friar, who had been egged on by the Duke’s widow.  In the end, Henri’s efforts came to nothing, and the throne passed from his family to that of his Protestant cousin Henri of Navarre, who converted to Catholicism and placed the House of Bourbon on the throne until the French Revolution.

When we see images today of politicians attempting to manipulate us into thinking that they are just like us, such efforts are not new.  By appealing to what they believe the average person wants to see, our contemporary leaders are simply following in a long tradition that stretches back through centuries of Western culture. The form of the media may have changed from painting and sculpture to videos and tweets, but the thinking behind these efforts is still very much the same.

Thus, the rediscovery of this painting is not only important for historians, it’s also a great opportunity to remind ourselves that the use of popular, and even religious imagery for political ends will likely always be a part of the media landscape.

King Henri II at the Foot of the Cross by Unknown Artist (16th Century) The Louvre, Paris

King Henri III at the Foot of the Cross by Unknown Artist (16th Century)
The Louvre, Paris

Mystery Solved? Debating the Case of Yale’s Basement Masterpiece

Readers may recall a piece I wrote some time ago about an Old Master painting which may or may not be by the greatest of all Spanish painters, Diego Velázquez.  “The Education of the Virgin” was donated to Yale not quite a century ago, and lay forgotten in the basement storage area of the university art museum for many years, until an art historian there first attributed the piece to the painter.  Although more and more experts have come to accept it, the attribution has remained controversial ever since.

Now, as part of the picture’s international exhibition travels to Madrid, Seville, Paris, Minneapolis, and back to New Haven, following its cleaning and restoration, a symposium has been announced for October 15-17 in Seville.  Experts will gather in the Andalusian cultural capital to examine the piece, and debate whether the painting is indeed by Velázquez or not.  If you are an art history nerd, as I am, you would love to be a fly on the wall for this.  If you are not, then you might conclude that these sorts of arguments really don’t matter.  Yet in truth these issues really are important, for several reasons.

From a purely economic standpoint, there is a huge difference between owning an original work of art by a well-known artist, and owning one by an unknown or lesser-known artist.  We might like to think that a quality work of art can stand on its own, without attribution, and sometimes it does.  However more often than not, whether you are talking insurance values or auction prices or ways to draw in the public, art from the hand of someone prestigious is always going to command a higher value than if the same work of art was created by an unknown.

Think about how this works on a more pop culture level.  I can draw fairly well, as it happens, and I might be able to do a fairly accurate drawing of Snoopy or one of the other Peanuts characters. But would you really pay the same price for my work, whether to own it or go see it in an exhibition, as you would for one that came from the hand of Charles Schultz himself?  Part of the value in a work of art lies in the intangible connection to something larger than the work itself provides at first glance.

This brings us to the larger issue, which is the importance in Western culture of understanding artistic development.  Unlike in many other artistic traditions around the world, Western artists have spent centuries adapting and changing how they and we see things.  Many cultures value an exact or near-exact continuity with the past, so that the differences between works of art created in one century and another are so slight, that it would take a serious expert to be able to discern the differences between them.

In addition, many times artists in other cultures did not date or sign their works, thus leaving their identities unknown to history.  While not all Western art is signed, we do have a long history from the beginning of Western culture of artists proudly placing their names on their paintings and sculptures.  We actually know the names of some of the most famous painters and sculptors of Ancient Greece, for example, even if in many cases their works only survive in copies.  When an artist did not sign his work however, historians and experts can look at works that are known for certain to be by that artist, and compare styles, techniques, and methods with the piece that is being examined; such is the case with the attribution of “The Education of the Virgin”.

One way to go about doing this is by getting a good sense of how that artist and his world changed over time.  If you look at an image of The Education of the Virgin created 100 years before this purported Velázquez, say this French example [N.B. yes, I realize it’s not entirely fair to compare these, but bear with me], there is a movement in the later work away from the rigid formality of the earlier.  This was mirrored in Western society of the time, as everything from clothing to homes, government, technology, and business, became more recognizable to us living in today’s culture, even though we are still far removed from it.

What’s more, often an individual Western artist himself could and did change quite a bit during his career.  Look at how Raphael painted the Madonna and Child when he was a young artist of 20, versus how he painted them as a mature artist of 30, a mere decade later, and you can see the dramatic difference.  If you were unaware of all of the works of art that Raphael painted between these two pictures, growing and changing as he experimented and studied, chances are you would never have guessed that they were by the same person.  Thus, art history in the West is often a combination of detective story, painstaking research, and really knowing your subject inside and out.

Whatever the result of the conference in Seville, the prospect of determining that this is a very early work by Spain’s most important artist, a man who influenced everyone from Edouard Manet and John Singer Sargent to Pablo Picasso and Francis Bacon, is very exciting.  It shows us not only how accomplished he really was at a young age, but it helps us to understand why his career catapulted so quickly, leading him to become the official painter for the Spanish court.  I’m looking forward to learning of the outcome from the experts.

"The Education of the Virgin" Attr. to Diego Velázquez (c. 1617) Yale University Art Gallery

“The Education of the Virgin” Attr. to Diego Velázquez (c. 1617)
Yale University Art Gallery