Doménikos Theotokópoulos is El Greco's real name, as his nickname is a reference to his origins. El Greco started his initial training as an icon painter in the Cretan School, then a leading center of Post-Byzantine art. He would later move into Italy, where he would get acquainted with Renaissance techniques and imagery. Even though El Greco's distinctive way of painting was polarized during his time, the artist had a large following and influential patrons. He later became an important influence on Modernist painters. The Greek's freely use of perspective became a major influence on Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques in their Cubist period.
Theotokópoulos was born in Heraklion, Crete, in 1541. Geórgios Theotokópoulos, his father, was a tax collector and a merchant, part of a prosperous urban family. Alongside his studies with painting, Doménikos was a dedicated student of Greek and Latin classics. In his library, there were 130 works, among them a Giorgio Vasari book.
The artist organized a painter's guild, based on the Italian model. At age 22, he was described as a "master" in a document, meaning he was a master of the guild and probably operating his workshop. Still, in Crete, El Greco painted the Dormition of the Virgin in tempera and gold. The painting combines post-Byzantine and Italian Mannerist style and iconography, as well as incorporating elements of the Cretan School. During this time in Crete, he also painted some altars for orthodox churches.
He left Crete and went to pursue a career in Venice, which is natural because Crete was then the property of the Republic of Venice since 1211. It is speculated that he was around 26 years when he left his homeland. Not much is known about his stay in Italy. What is known is that he lived in Venice until 1570 and was an apprentice of Titian, who, to this day, is considered one of the best painters of all time.
The time that El Greco was working under Titian during his last years. It is known that in his late period, Titian didn't use drawings to prepare his paintings and was embracing a gestural treatment to his artwork, favoring the color relations instead of focusing on drawing and structure. While early works might have had a sculptural feeling, the emphasis on the brushstroke and this visceral way of painting created an impression of movement and vitality. This looser way of working, while still creating an interesting color scheme, surely had its impact on young El Greco. During this time, El Greco also learned how to work with perspective and anatomy, aspects of painting he incorporated with his post-Byzantine teachings of Crete.
After his year living in Venice, El Greco moved to Rome in 1570. He completed a series of works, clearly marked by his apprenticeship in Venice. El Greco was received at the Palazzo Farnese as a guest. Giulio Clovio, an illuminator, requested that the young apprentice from Titian be lodged. The Palazzo was made by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, an artistic and intellectual center for the city. There El Greco made acquaintances with the intellectual elite of the town. Shortly arriving, the painter set up a studio, counting with the help of two apprentices. Around one year later, the painter argued with Farnese and was sent away from the Palazzo.
During this time in Rome, El Greco developed his way of painting. Even though Thetokópoulos was learning and having more intimate contact with the Renaissance, it's visible in his work that he didn't simply discard his old teachings at Crete, and was rather making a synthesis of both sources into something new and unique. While most painters were struggling to accept Mannerism, a reaction to the Renaissance's order and balance, and still considered a new manifestation in art, El Greco observed and absorbed some of the movement's aspects.
Mannerism privileged an unbalanced aesthetic with exaggeration and no regard for perfect anatomy. Although the Greek painter wasn't considered a Mannerist, those aspects can be found in his work. The Mannerist painters advocated for a passionate and expressive view on art, in arrangements that would break with the usual geometric logic behind most Renaissance artworks.
Even though Theokópoulos arrived at Rome, apparently, with a few client references and setting up his own studio, commercially, he didn't fare well during this period. He was part of the prestigious Guild of Saint Luke but still didn't receive commissions during the six years in the association. It is speculated that he was excluded from commissions and the circle of patrons because he was open about his critiques of Michelangelo, an artist held in the highest regard in Rome.
El Greco migrated to Spain in 1577, first to Madrid and then, Toledo, where he produced his mature works. The painter went to the city in hopes of working in the San Lorenzo monastery, a royal commission. Toledo was one of the artistic centers of Europe at the time. It was during this time that he earned the name for which he is famous now. El Greco was proud of his origins and signed his works with his full name in the Greek alphabet.
Different from his time spent in Rome, the artist was embraced by a circle of intellectuals, artists, and patrons. It wasn't long before he started taking church commissions. It was there that he became close to a humanist and artistic circle. Among his friends, there were: Hortensio Paravicino, favorite preacher o King Phillip II, Luís de Gongora y Argote, one of the most celebrated Spanish writers, and Don Pedro de Salazar Mendonza.
Eventually, the artist converted to Catholicism and historians speculating that his family was greek orthodox. As it can be inferred in his statement on Michelangelo's Last Judgment, El Greco said that he would make it better and more Christian. On another occasion, he related his creative impulses to voices that whispered in his head. Despite his change of faith, it's perceivable that Theokópoulos associated the function of art with the divine power, as a spiritual practice that could embody metaphysical questions. The Spaniards that have a highly mystical sensibility, as it was stated by Gertrude Stein, could welcome and understand the art of El Greco in a way that the Italians couldn't.
One year after arriving in Spain, the artist had a son. His name was Jorge Manuel, and his mother was Doña Jerónima de Las Cuevas. El Greco gave her affection and treated her as his wife during his life, which was confirmed in his correspondence. Still, they were curiously never married, which opened a lot of questions about the artist's early undocumented life, with the hypothesis of him having a marriage prior to going to Italy. Jorge Manuel would inherit his father's studio and dedicate a considerable part of his life to becoming a painter and worked on reproductions of El Greco's art.
There is speculation that the Greek artist was approached by King Phillip II. El Greco intended on becoming a court painter since he arrived in Toledo. The painter received two commissions from the Spanish king: The Martyrdom of St. Maurice and The Adoration of the Name of Jesus. Sadly, El Greco's professional goals didn't result in what he expected, since King Phillip wasn't fond of the results, and The Martyrdom of St. Maurice wasn't even placed in the chapel that it was originally planned.
The artist didn't receive any other commissions from the court, ending any expectations of him coming closer to the royal circle. It is worth noting that Phillip was hard to please and that Benvenuto Cellini and Federico Zuccari experienced a similar situation. During his time in Toledo, Theokópoulos also worked as an architect and a sculptor. Unfortunately, there aren't many documented works in those areas.
In Toledo, he met with many prominent figures, the main one being Luis de Castilla, son of Diego de Castilla, the dean of the Toledo Cathedral. This friendship granted him many commissions. He signed contracts for several artworks to adorn the church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo and the renewed El Espolio, including Assumption of the Virgin and The Trinity, establishing his reputation in Toledo.
El Greco moved to the palace of Marqués de Villena in 1585. Probably the artist was seeking a more significant working place. During this time, El Greco was already enjoying considerable fame and had a stable life with lots of friends from religious, artistic, and intellectual circles. In 1586, he received a commission to create his best-known work, The Burial of Count Orgaz. From 1597 on, the artist was busy with an increasing stream of commissions and painted in many monasteries and chapels. This was a significant period for the painter, as he produced a considerable amount of his masterpieces.
El Greco fell ill and passed away on April 7, 1614. He was 72 years old at the time. Before his death, the Greek master was working on the Hospital Tavera.
During a time where art was reaching a new and inventive period, El Greco never backed down from his convictions. As much as there are differentiations when comparing Renaissance artists, only a few had a distinctive and creative voice as Theokópoulos did. In times, this confidence in his vision, bathed by his personal faith and spiritual relation to art, led him to be misunderstood during his own time.
His expressive, gestural, and colorful way would be an example for later artists that wished to create beyond the Academic and Realist norms. El Greco's work has a high emphasis on form, with thrilling and moving compositions, and an impactful way of dealing with color - all traits that would be valued centuries later.
It was during Romanticism, a period where individuality, freedom, and passionate individuals were valued, that his work was reevaluated. With the ascension of the Cubist movement, the Greek oeuvre was finally fully understood and became considered a significant visual reference for other artists. For instance, El Greco's use of elongated anatomy to the point of distortion had an intuitive and freer use of perspective and his use color in an almost autonomous and non-linear way - traits that Picasso observed with attention.