Doménikos Theotokópoulos is El Greco’s real name, the latter being a nickname. This name is a reference to his origin, born in Heraklion, Crete in 1541. The artist was born to a prosperous urban family, and his father was a merchant. El Greco started his initial training as an icon painter in the Cretan School, then a leading center of post-Byzantine art. He probably studied the Greek and perhaps Latin classics as well.
The painter 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 own 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.
Leaving Crete, he went to pursue a career in Venice, which is natural, because Crete was then property of the Republic of Venice since 1211. Little is known about his time in Italy, and he lived in Venice until 1570 when he was an apprentice of Titian. After Venice, he moved to Rome completing a series of works, clearly marked by his apprenticeship in Venice. El Greco was received at the Palazzo Farnese as a guest. 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.
El Greco pursued a unique style to distinguish himself, unlike other Cretan painters living in Venice, making unusual and new interpretations of religious subjects. While in Italy he was deeply influenced by the Venetian Renaissance style of the period.
El Greco migrated to Spain in 1577, first to Madrid and then, Toledo, where he produced his mature works. In Toledo he met with many prominent figures, the main one being Luis de Castilla, son of Diego de Castilla, who was the dean of the Cathedral of Toledo. 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’s intention was to win the favor of Philip II of Spain and make his mark in his court. Although he commissioned two important works, the king was not satisfied, giving him no further commissions. Lacking the king’s favor, El Greco was forced to remain in Toledo, where he was regarded as a great painter at the time. He established a workshop, producing from altar frames, statues, to paintings as well. In 1586 he received a commission to create his best-known work, The Burial of Count Orgaz.