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El Greco

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

October 7, 2003 to January 11, 2004

The National Gallery, London

February 11 to May 23, 2004

The Shock of the Old

"The Opening of the Fifth Seal (The Vision of Saint John" by El Greco

"The Opening of the Fifth Seal (The Vision of Saint John)," by El Greco, oil on canvas, 222.3 by 193 centimeters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fun, 1608-14

By Carter B. Horsley

The only artist to truly challenge Vincent Van Gogh and Joseph William Mallard Turner as the greatest painter in Western Art history is Domenikos Theotokopoulos, who is known as El Greco (1541-1614).

Other artists such as Jan Van Eyck, Bosch, Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer are magnificent but lack the overwhelming emotional power and painterliness of Van Gogh and El Greco.

El Greco, of course, precedes Turner and Van Gogh chronologically. Interestingly, all three were relatively not terribly influential in terms of founding "schools" during their lifetimes, a reflection perhaps of how unique their talents were. Turner, of course, could lay claim to being the founder of abstract painting and Van Gogh, of course, could take credit for the wild colors of the Fauves.

The achievements of El Greco, on the other hand, are bounded by traditional religious subject matter and portraits, and his style of elongation and vibrant palette owe not a little to the Italian Mannerists such as Michelangelo, Parmigianino, and Bronzino. Still, El Greco's paintings are explosively bold yet hauntingly graceful and his compositions are memorable and quite original.
His masterpieces really have no peers. They are startling whereas Turner's are dramatic and Van Gogh's are beautiful. Familiarity with Van Gogh's torments adds a great emotional value to his works, or course, whereas El Greco's and Turner's sufferings were slight.

In their foreword to the catalogue of this El Greco exhibition, Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Charles Saumaurez Smith, the director of the National Gallery in London, provide the following commentary:

"El Greco is one of the few old master painters who enjoys widespread popularity. Like Vermeer, Piero della Francesca and Botticelli, he was rescued from obscurity by an avid group of nineteenth-century collectors, critics and artists to become one of the select members of the modern pantheon of great painters. Indeed, he has sometimes seemed the proto-modern painter an artist who, in the worlds of the French critic Paul Mantz, writing in 1844, 'even in his extravagance always demonstrates his great feeling for art.' Delacroix owned a reduced copy of El Greco's Disrobing of Christ similar to the one exhibited here, and John Singer Sargent, a great admirer of El Greco, purchased a version of Saint Martin and the Beggar. Cezanne copied the portrait of A Lady in a Fur Wrap, which had been the most popular of a handful of El Greco's works displayed in Louis-Philippe's celebrated Galerie Espagnole in 1938. Manet was reserved in his judgement: like so many artists and critics before him, he found El Greco's work `bizarre' but his portraits `fort beaux' a verdict with which his hero Velazquez would have concurred. As late as 1919, the British public's understanding of the artist had not caught up with this critical change, and when the National Gallery in London acquired the Agony in the Garden, there was an outcry. During the crucial period Picasso was working on that keystone of modern painting, the Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907), he visited his friend Ignacio Zuloaga in his studio in Paris and studied El Greco's Opening of the Fifth Seal, which left an indelible impression. For Picasso, too, El Greco was both the quintessential Spaniard and a precursor of Cezanne and Cubism. Franz Marc and the members of the Blue Rider group admired El Greco as a painter who 'felt the mystical inner construction' of life: someone whose art stood as a rejection of the materialist culture of bourgeois society."

The directors also noted that "it is worth mentioning that the famous, but baseless notion that El Greco was astigmatic, famously put forward in a pamphlet in 1914, was soundly rejected by Sargent, who rightly related the artist's 'exaggeration of elegance' to sixteenth-century issues of style."

The exhibition includes a small group of icons El Greco painted in his native Crete, prior to his move to Venice in 1567. "These works," the directors continued, "remind us of the Neoplatonic, non-naturalistic basis of El Greco's art, before he set about transforming himself into a disciple of Titian and an avid student of Tintoretto, Veronese and Jacopo Bassano.Pachecovisited El Greco in his studio in Toledo in 1611 and recorded seeing the plaster, wax and clay figures from which El Greco worked. He did not approve of this method, which El Greco had doubtless learned from Tintoretto in Venice: Pacheco advocated a real human figure rather than something modeled in clay. It is thus not surprising the El Greco's pupil Luis Tristan abandoned his master's esoteric Mannerist style for Caravaggesque naturalism."

John H. Elliott provides a most interesting chapter in the catalogue on "El Greco's Mediterranean: the Encounter of Civilizations." He notes that El Greco's trip to Venice in 1567 was at a time of "impending crisis for the Republic and its empire a crisis in which his family in Crete would be fatally engulfed. The city, with a population of some 170,000,had survived both the opening by the Portuguese of an overseas route to the spices of the East and the replacement of the Byzantine empire by that of the Ottoman Turks. By the middle years of the sixteenth century Venice, although it maintained a substantial fleet, had become a pygmy in a Mediterranean world dominated by two opposing giants. An expanding Ottoman empire lay to its east, and to its west lay the Spanish monarchy and empire, of which the government passed in 1556 from Charles V to Philip II. The presence on Spanish soil of a large population of Moorish descent, the Moriscos left behind in the peninsula after the completion of its reconquest by Christian forces in 1492, and only nominally converted to Christianity was a persistent reminder of the centuries of hostility between Christendom and Islam. In July 1570, Turkish forces invaded Cyprus and laid siege to Famagusta. Pius V, the most austere of Counter-Reformation popes, saw this as the moment for realizing his long-cherished dream of organizing an alliance of Christian powers against the forces of Islam. Struggling to save Famagusta, the Venetian republic set aside its objections to a military confrontation with the Ottoman empire and an alliance with Spain. By this time El Greco had been in Rome for several months. In the early summer of 1571 Spain, the papacy and the normally recalcitrant Venetians were at last united against a common enemy, and on 7 October the combined allied fleets, under the supreme command of Don John of Austria, met and defeated the Ottoman fleet in Greek waters at Lepantoin the Corinthian Gulf. While the psychological impact of the victory was enormous, bringing a vast sense of relief to a Christendom which had long felt beleaguered by Islam, its aftermath proved in many respects a sad disappointment. Pius V and Don John of Austria dreamed of a crusade which would see Christian banners flying from the towers of Istanbul and Jerusalem. Greek copyists, poring over their codices in Spain, dreamed of the liberation of their homeland from the Turks. But the Venetians were interested only in the fate of Cyprus, which they finally surrendered to the Turks in 1573 in return for peace, and Spain's attention was being diverted from the Mediterranean by its struggle with the Dutch. For Philip II the challenge of Islam was beginning to take second place to the Protestant challenge emanating from the Netherlands, England and France. For its part the Ottoman empire was becoming increasingly absorbed in developments on its Persian front. El Greco was faring little better. Disappointed by Farnese patronage he failed to obtain major commissions , and his prickly temperament and outlandish opinions did not help to smooth his path. Once again he decided to try his luck elsewhere, this time with Titian's royal patron, Philip II of Spain. By October 1576 he was to be found in Madrid. Failing to find employment at the Escorial or with the court in Madrid, he made to bake do for the time being with Toledo. All the indications are that El Greco went to Toledo as a result of the friendship he had struck up in Rome with Luis de Castilla, who had gravitated into the Farnese circle on his arrival in the city in 1570. Luis, the illegitimate son of Don Diego de Castilla, dean of the Toledo Cathedral chapter, was well placed to obtain commission for El Greco in his native city.The religious purity of Spain was seen to be threatened not only by Protestants whose heresies infiltrated into the peninsula through subversive literature, but also by the activities of Moors and alleged crypto-Jews.Some forty years later, in 1609-11, the government of Philip's son and successor, Philip III, adopted a radical solution to the festering Morisco question by expelling from Spain the entire Morisco population, some 300,000 strong. Once the internal threat from Protestanism had been eradicated, the taint of 'judaising' had moved to the top of the Inquisition's list of concerns. Practicing Jews had been expelled from Spain in 1492, but many had converted to Christianity both before and at time of the expulsion. Unlike the Moriscos, who usually held lowly occupations, many of these Jews' descendants, the so-called converses or 'new' Christians, occupied important positions both in Church and state. In the sixteenth century in Toldeo conversos were to be found in the flourishing merchant community, in the cathedral chapter and on the city council. But in 1547, against strong opposition from Diego de Castilla, Cardinal-Archbishop Siliceo pushed through the cathedral chapter a statue of 'limpieza de sangre' (purity of blood), excluding from ecclesiastical offices and benefices anyone with a trace of Jewish lineage over four sour generations. In 1566, the crown imposed a similar statue on the Toledo city council."

In his catalogue essay, "El Greco's Religious Art: The Illumination and Quickening of the Spirit," David Davies notes that El Greco was trained in the local post-Byzantine style in Crete in which "there is no concern with optical observation, either empirical or scientific," adding that "its purposed is to convey the transcendental world of the figures represented, rather the natural phenomena as perceived by the senses. Figures tend to be two-dimensional, elongated and uniform in size and proportion. The reliance on stereotypes may suggest a lack of imagination, but it also reveals a conscious lack of interest in individualisation. It is not a matter of who the figures are but what they are.there is evidence of a subtly unconventional approach to Byzantine sacred imagery on El Greco's part. In The Dormition Christ is not depicted in a rigid, upright, position, as in many contemporary icons of the subject. Instead He leans over His mother and tenderly gathers her soul. The gestures of poses of the disciples are also varied and animated. The drawing of the angels in grisaille is astonishingly fluent. The Virgin in Heaven is in a contrapposto pose and the angel at the left is gracefully contorted into a figura serpentinata. All these stylistic factors, together with the elegant candelabrum ornamented with semi-nude females at the base of the image, point to El Greco's study of Italian Renaissance sources, notably prints."

"The Purification of the Temple" by El Greco

"The Purification of the Temple," by El Greco, oil on canvas, 106 by 104 centimeters, Parish Church of San Fines, Madrid, probably after 1610

El Greco would offer return to the same subject. The exhibition includes three versions of "The Purification of the Temple." The catalogue notes that Wethey's catalogue raisonne lists four versions as autograph works and eight as studio pictures or copies. The catalogue provides the following commentary for the version shown above which is in the collection of the Church of San Fines in Madrid and is illustrated in the catalogue but not included in the exhibition:

"In his catalogue of the artist's works, Wethey argued that this version of The Purification, which dates from the last years of El Greco's career, was partly executed by Jorge Manuel. Cleaning has since revealed the signature and, although this does not certify El Greco's sole authorship, has shown that the quality of the work is very high and its execution all of a piece. The figure group is very close to that of the National Gallery picture, but perhaps even closer to the painting in the Frick Collection., It is includes, on the right-hand side, a woman carrying a basket on her head and gesturing with her hand. Her identity and significance have not been satisfactorily explained. She is clearly not the same person as the bare-breasted woman with a child who appears in the early versions of the subject. Her isolation, her gesture and her position o the side of the `redeemed'suggest that she could be the poor widow who was observed by Christ and his disciplines putting two small coins in the Temple treasury. Jesus contrasted her generosity with the painless largesse of the rich:...If this identification is correct, her presence in the painting would bolster one of its central themes, Christ's abhorrence of religious commerce and hypocrisy. The figure running in from the left, an innovation of this composition, has been interpreted as a female trade who has recognized Christ and been converted. The most remarkable change in the San Gines painting, however, related to the architectural setting. El Greco has shifted the action from the Temple porch to the inner sanctuary. At the centre of the structure supporting the altarpiece, which is almost identical to the one designed by the artist for the high altar of the church of the Hospital de la Carida at Illescas and completed in 1605, is a tomb-like object with an obelisk, perhaps the Ark of the Covenant, which stood inside the Holy of Holies, or (less likely) the tomb of King David. On the left, there is a relief of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve, similar to that in the London picture., and above it a statue of a naked male figure who has been variously identified as Adam, his son Seth, or an unidentified idol. The changes introduced into this version of The Purification indicate El Greco's continuing reflection on the subject. He continued to add layers of interpretation to the end of his career."

"Christ Healing the Blind" by El Greco

"Christ Healing the Blind," by El Greco, oil on canvas, 119.4 by 146.1 centimeters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Wrightsman, about 1570

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"First recorded in 1888 as the work of Tintoretto and later ascribed to Veronese, this painting was only recognized as the work of El Greco in 1858; alone among his three versions of this subject it is not signed. It is the largest of the tree, being more than twice the size of the painting the Galleria Nazionale in Parmaand about the same size as The Purification of the Temple in Minneapolis, with which it must be more or less contemporary. It is also the most sketchy in execution and is, indeed, unfinished: note, in particular, the circular temple and the back row of heads at the left, two of which are no more than blocked in. The two seated figures in the middle ground were so thinly painted that the pavement is visible through them.Until recently there was a consensus of opinion that the Metropolitan canvas was the latest of the three treatments of the subject and possibly dated from El Greco's first years in Spain. The picture was certainly known there, as two Spanish copies of it exist. Moreover, the brilliant palette recalls that of The Assumption of the Virgin contracted in 1577 for the high altar of Santo Domingo in Toledo. However, in 1991, Vechnyak made a compelling case for dating the Metropolitan canvas between the Dresden and Parma pictures, and her arguments have been taken up by a number of scholars, notably Held and Schutz. Certainly the Parma picture contains many more references to Roman pictorial and architectural traditions and also adopts a more subdued palette. Might we think of the Metropolitan canvas as El Greco's initial response to Rome a response that was quickly superseded by a more intimate knowledge of Roman practice? That might explain why the picture was never brought to conclusion. In this case, the unfinished canvas might have been kept by the artist and taken to Spain, where the two copies were surely made. But there is another possibility, and that is that the absence of some of the most Roman features found in the Parma version denote a reaffirmation by El Greco of his sympathies for Venetian art and may reflect a return trip to Venice following an unsuccessful bid for patronage in Rome."

"The Agony in the Garden" by El Greco

"The Agony in the Garden," by El Greco, oil on canvas. 102.2 by 113.7 centimeters, Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio, early 1590s

The catalogue describes the version of "The Agony in the Garden," shown above, as "one of the artist's most succesful inventions," noting that he did both horizontal and vertical versions, adding that "this painting is probably the prototype, or at any rate the best autograph version, of the horizontal type." "El Greco's representation is shot through with emotional and spiritual drama. The agitation experienced by Christ before the Passion is reflected in the way the different kinds of light, both real and supernatural, thrash around the scene. The moon shines through the clouds, investing them with a glassy three-dimensionality so that they appear to crash into the rocky outcrop that frames the figure of Christ. The rock itself reflects the heavenly beams that pour down on to Christ, which seem to turn the rock into flames; and on the left the cloud that bears the consoling angel is transformed by illumination into a transparent chrysalis that envelops the slumbering Apostles Peter, James and John."

"The Adoration of the Name of Jesus" by El Greco

"The Adoration of the Name of Jesus," by El Greco, oil and tempera on pine, 57.8 by 34.2 centimeters, the National Gallery, London, late 1570s

One of the great virtues of this exhibition is that it includes several works in different versios. "The Adoration of the Name of Jesus," shown above, for example, is a smaller and nearly identical version of a work in the exhibition in the collection of the Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial." It is a quite spectacular composition with a very Boschian Leviathan in the lower right corner.

"A View of Toledo" by El Greco

"A View of Toledo," by El Greco, oil on canvas, 121.3 by 108.6 centimeters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Haveymeyer Collection, about 1597-9

The catalogue provides a quotation from art critic Kenneth Clark about "A View of Toledo":

"This extraordinary work is an exception to all rules, far removed from the spirit of Mediterranean art and from the rest of seventeenth-century landscape painting. It has more the character of nineteenth-century romantic painting, though Turner is less morbid, and van Gogh less full of artifice; and to find analogies we must look in Romantic music, in Liszt and Berlioz."

"As Brown and Kagan noted," the catalogue entry maintained, "the Metropolitan painting belongs to a tradition of emblematic city reviews and derives its potency as an evocation precisely from the representational license it takes. As with El Greco's finest portraits, its approach is interpretative rather than documentary: it seeks to portray the essence of the city rather than to record its actual appearance. In Aristolelian terms, it substitutes poetic for historic truth."

This painting is most intriguing. Its composition cuts off part of the Toledo cityscape at the right. The buildings are painted with a ghostly clarity but the foreground landscape is almost primitively executed. The sky, on the other hand, is extremely dramatic and painterly.

"A Cardinal (probably Nino de Guevara" by El Greco

"A Cardinal (probably Nino de Guevara)," by El Greco, oil on canvas, 170.8 by 108 centimeters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, 1600-1

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"This celebrated picture a landmark in the history of European portraiture has become synonymous not only with El Greco, but with Spain and the Spanish Inquisition. His finely wrought features framed by a manicured, graying beard and crimson biretta, the sitter is perched like some magnificent bird of prey in a gold-fringed chair, his dazzling watered-silk robes, mozzetta and lace-trimmed rochet flaring out like exotic plumage. The round-rimmed glasses confer on his gaze a frightening, hawkish intensity as he examines the viewer with an air of implacable, even cruel detachment, his right hand impatiently almost convulsively grasping the armrest. Although a description such as this may seem too subjective, even arbitrary, to merit serious consideration, ever since the portrait was first exhibited in 1902 and identified as Cardinal Don Fernando Nino de Guevara (1541-1609), Inquisitor General and Archbishop of Seville, it has been impossible to separate our responses from the dreaded institution this figure headed with notable inflexibility between 1599 and 1602. The modernity of El Greco's extraordinary pictures resides precisely in the way he has re-defined portraiture as characterization rather than mere description. We may appreciate the degree to which El Greco manipulated visual fact for expressive effect simply by noting the distorted perspective of the marble-lined floor, which introduces a feeling of uneasiness, and the rigid, bilateral division of the background between a rich brocade hanging and the rectangular panels of a wooden door, tightly shut; or the effect of the creased paper bearing El Greco's signature that the cardinal has apparently dropped, or discarded...the proposal made by Brown and Carr (1982) that the sitter is not Nino de Guevara but Bernardo de Sandoval y Rojas, Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo (1546-1618), a dedicated Church reformer, patron of the arts, and Nino de Guevara's successor as Inquisitor General (1608), thus assumes more than passing interest. Ultimately, the identification is based on the (undeniable) resemblance of the sitter to two documented portraits of Sandoval, one by Luis Tristan, in the chapter house of Toledo Cathedral (dated 1619) and the other an engraving bearing the date 1599. However, in neither does Sandoval wear glasses, which seems curious for someone who chose to be portrayed wearing them in a formal portrait; in El Greco's picture they are fashionably attached by strings around the ears. Also, Sandoval preferred to trim his beard straight across rather than taper it meticulously to a point, as in El Greco's portrait. The question of resemblances is further complicated by the fact that at some time in its history the Metropolitan portrait was seriously vandalized: the current shape of the bridge of the nose is a reconstruction, based in part on a copy of the painting in the Museo de El Greco, Toledo. That painting, in turn, has been very tentatively identified with a portrait of Nino de Guevara attributed to Luis Tristan that is said to have hung in Guevara's funerary chapel in San Pablo, Toledo."

To some viewers, the sitter may not appear as menacing as in the above description. In any event, the points about the asymmetrical background and the paper on the floor are interesting and there is not question that the work is extremely painterly.

"The Annunciation" by El Greco

"The Annunciation," by El Greco, oil on canvas, 115 by 67 centimeters, Museo Thyssen-Bornemesza, Madrid, about 1597-1600

In his best compositions, such as "The Annunciation," which is in the Museo Thyseen-Bornemesza in Madrid, El Greco has a strong sense of upward mobility. Motion is a tool he uses with great emotionality. Perspective is not terribly important, nor details. If a 21st-Century photographer were to try to get the exposure right in such composition he would must likely go crazy and much of the genius of El Greco lies in his astonishing lighting. The work illustrated above is a reduced replica of a work that hangs in the Prado in Madrid and had been commissioned by the Colegio de Dona Maria de Aragon.

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"The picture is thus far more than a narrative: it is a meditation o the Incarnation of Christ. The absence of rational space, the unreal treatment of the light, and the invasion of the viewer's space by the weightless angel, whose cloud floats in front of the dais on which the Virgin kneels, has the effect of involving the viewer -worshipper in a dynamic, visionary experience."

"The Adoration of the Shepherds" by El Greco

"The Adoration of the Shepherds," by El Greco, oil on canvas, 319 by 180 centimeters, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, about 1612-4

In "The Adoration of the Shepherds," shown above, the whirling composition is highlighted by extremely vibrant yellows and reds and blues. The figures are extremely distorted but are absorbingly depicted and posed with great grace. The quality of light, especially against the surrounding black background, is intensely fascinating, especially when the diminutive size of the Christ child is perceived. The Christ child is almost an insignificant feature of the composition and the eye is drawn more to the man in the blue robe in the lower left corner and to the man in the yellow garment at the center right. The light seems to emanate from the Christ child but the painting almost appears to be animated as if the viewer were floating.

"El Greco seems to forego any attempt to achieve balanced proportions, harmonious colouring and comprehensible space, transforming the scene into a transcendent and spiritual happening depicted in bright and contrasting colours. One of El Greco's last paintings, this is also one of his finest, painted specifically to hang above his tomb in the convent church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo. Unlike other paintings of this period, it seems to haven entirely executed by his own hand, without the help of son, Jorge Manuel. It is thought by some that El Greco may have portrayed himself as one of the shepherds, possibly he one in the foreground kneeling in a gesture suggesting eternal prayer of this forgiveness of his sins at the Last Judgment."

Another great vertical composition in the exhibition is "The Resurrection," which is in the collection of the Prado in Madrid.

The catalogue provides the following commentary:

"El Greco's skill in creating dramatically foreshortened figures is clamorously apparent in the solider wearing a yellow cuirass sprawled in the foreground, in the adjacent solider in green,who recalls Michelangelo's sculpture of Night in the Medici Chapel in Florence. Michangelo's drawing of The Resurrection (Royal Collection, Windsor Castle), which belonged to Giulio Clovio and was certainly known to El Greco, has sometimes been cited as a source for the painting, but the debt is general rather than specific. The figure of Christ is very similar in pose and design to the sculpted figure of the resurrected Christ which the artist had made a few years earlier to crown the tabernacle in the chapel of the Tavera Hospital....By excluding any visual reference to the tomb or landscape, El Greco removed the scene from the realm of history; he articulated its universal significance through the dynamism of the nine figures that make up the composition and the intensity of light and colours."

"The Disrobing of Christ ('El Espolio')" by El Greco

"The Disrobing of Christ (`El Espolio'), by El Greco, oil on panel, 55.6 by 34.7 centimeters, Bearsted Collection, Upton House, Warwickshire (The National Trust), shown in London only

The exhibition includes what it describes as probably a "reduced autograph replica" of "The Disrobing of Christ" that hangs in the sacristy of the Toledo Cathedral. The catalogue describes the "Disrobing" as "one of the finest and most important paintings of El Greco's career," adding that "The clouds above Christ, painted in strog diagonals, provide a 'path' of uplifting communication between Christ and God the Father."

"The Holy Family with Saint Mary Magdalen" by El Greco

"The Holy Family with Saint Mary Magdalen," by El Greco, oil on canvas, 131.8 by 101.3 centimeters, The Cleveland Museum of Art, about 1595-1600

In "The Holy Family with Saint Mary Magdalen," shown above, El Greco dispenses with the landscape usually employed in such depictions, and the Virgin Mary is closed in an enormous blue coat. Mary Magdalen's hand is rather awkwardly place over the Virgin Mary's right shoulder and the Christ Child has a rather strange countenance, especially in comparison with the lovely renderings of the faces of the three adults. The catalogue notes that this is "one of El Greco's most appealing devotional images...[and was] repeated a number of times by his workshop and imitators."

"A Lady in a Fur Wrap" by El Greco

"A Lady in a Fur Wrap," by El Greco, oil on canvas, 62.5 by 58.9, Glasgow Museums, Art Gallery & Museums, Kelvingrove, The Stirling-Maxwell Collection, Pollock House, late 1570s

El Greco's style is so distinct that we are surprised to discover a beautiful work that bears little resemblance to that style, such as "A Lady in a Fur Wrap," shown above.

The catalogue provides the following commentary on this work:

"This striking image of a dark-eyed, full-lipped, fur-clad woman with tightly curled black hair has intrigued historians for more than a century and a half. When it was exhibited at the Galerie Espagnole in the Louvre in 1838 it was called a 'portrait of the daughter of El Greco'; ever since it has been the subject of much discussion as regards both the identity of the sitter and indeed the identity of the painter....It has been proposed as a work of Tintoretto..., of an artist in the circle of the court portraitist Alonso Sanchez Coello (Lafuente Ferrari) and, most recently, of the Cremonese portrait painter Sofonisba Anguissola....None of these is any more convincing, however, than the traditional attribution."

Indeed, the woman's face strongly recalls that in "A Young Lady" by Petrus Christus in Berlin and her hand and her fur coat recalls those in "A Young Roman Woman," by Sebastiano Del Piombo, also in Berlin.

In any event, it is hard to reconcile the finely painted and undistorted head of the woman with El Greco's style, which is not to say that it is not a lovely picture.

"Laocoon," by El Greco

"Laocoon," by El Greco, oil on canvas, 137.5 by 172.5 centimeters, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., early 1610s

"Laocoon" is, according to the catalogue, "El Greco's secular masterpiece. It is a work of great compositional dynamism and pictorial virtuosity, offering a dense texture of cultural, historical and topical allusions. Painted late in his career, it is his only significant effort at a subject from ancient mythology." Laocoon was the priest of Nepture at Troy who warned the Trojans about the Greek wooden horse.

El Greco occasionally is less than sensational, but in paintings like "Laocoon," "The Opening of the Fifth Seal," "The Agony in Garden," "Toledo," and "The Adoration of the Shepherds" he is startling and very, very memorable.


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Read an very interesting review of this exhibition by John Updike in The New York Review of Books


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