Greco, Grand Palais, Paris
16 October 2019 – 10 February 2020
(Art Institute, Chicago, 7 March – 21 June 2020)
A full retrospective dedicated to the oeuvre of El
Greco has been a long time coming. Previous
exhibitions have emphasized certain aspects of the
artist’s intriguing stylistic development: his venezianità
and his position within the Venetian tradition;
his radical mannerist Spanish years; his supposed
modernism and undoubted influence on modern
painting. It is cause for celebration, therefore, that
the recent exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris has
not adopted this type of approach but has instead
gathered a comprehensive body of the artist’s work
and based its selection on scientific and aesthetic
quality alone.
Fig. 1 / Domenico
Theotokopoulos, known
as El Greco, Saint Luke
Painting the Virgin and
Child, before 1567,
tempera and gold on
canvas attached to panel,
41.6 x 33 cm, Athens,
Benaki Museum.
Greco’s journey from Venetian Candia to Toledo
is the principle linking theme; indeed, the artist
appears to us as the ideal subject of Ferdinand
Braudel’s Mediterranean world during the reign
of Philip II, particularly in the period after 1571
with the triumph over the Ottomans in the Battle
of Lepanto. It was a time when a free spirit like El
Greco could circulate within a vast social system with
a shared representation culture. This is highlighted
by the commendable willingness of senior curator
Guillaume Kientz to permit the organic coexistence
of early works, still in the process of attribution, with
ones which are later and better-known. Paintings
such as Christ Carrying the Cross (cat. 8, Private
Collection) and Portrait of a Man (cat. 20, Julius
Priester collection) are presented alongside those that
have already achieved “mythological” status, such as
Portrait of Cardinal Niño de Guevara (cat. 26, New York
The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
The first part of the exhibition, entitled “From Crete to
Italy (ca. 1560-1576)”, deals with a body of work which
is characterized as “hybrid” (although the vagueness of
this characteristic could be applied to all of El Greco’s
work). It presents a mixture of styles and techniques,
the balance of which changes gradually from GreekOrthodox to Roman-Catholic as Greco passes from
Crete to Venice and Rome. Greco’s liberal Byzantinism
(in contrast to the more rigid execution of most work
associated with this school) is already evident in his Saint
Luke Painting the Virgin from the Benaki Museum, Athens
(cat. 1, 1560-1566) (fig. 1). This work, along with the
absent Dormition of the Virgin from Syros (fig. 1 in the
catalogue) show the beginnings of his Mannerism,
which was extracted from Venetian-Flemish prints
imported into Crete. Following this, we see a sequence
of portable small-scale wooden panels and triptychs
produced in Italy, painted with egg-tempera or
mixed media (all post-Byzantine indications), which
have abandoned their gold-leaf background and
two-dimensionality for the colours and stretched
corporeality of Venetian Mannerism. The curators
do not mention the Ferrara triptych – largely based
on prints and probably Greco’s first surviving work
in Italy – but do present us with the beautiful Modena
Triptych (cat. 3, fig. 2 here) and bring to our attention the
surving two panels from what must have been an earlier
one (illustrated in the catalogue in figs. 34 & 35).
Traditionally dated to 1568, there has been much
controversy in recent decades about whether the backside of the Modena Triptych suggests a date as late as
1569 or even early 1570s.1 One of the strongest pieces


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