El Greco Sizzles in Chicago, in Paris, Not So Much

El Greco Sizzles in Chicago, in Paris, Not So Much
Installation shot of El Greco: Ambition and Defiance, 2020. (Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)

But it’s El Greco … either way, you can’t go wrong.


omenikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco (1541–1614), is almost always not only good but exhilarating. Bizarre, twisting saints, roiling night skies, faces flush with piety, and a psychedelic palette . . . It all seems inconceivable, but in the hands of a master painter and designer, he gets his message of Christian faith across to all but the densest. He’s wild enough to be pagan-friendly, too.

El Greco: Ambition and Defiance is the new survey show organized by the Grand Palais in Paris and the Art Institute of Chicago. I saw it at both places, two weeks ago in Chicago before the business district off the Loop was trashed by those pesky — I think we’re to call them “mostly peaceful protesters.” I wrote about the Paris iteration for NR, finding the show worth a visit — it’s El Greco — though I didn’t like the arrangement of objects in Paris and thought it suffered from intellectual thinness, which, alas, no amount of lush, electric, wild El Grecos can cure.

How do the two versions compare? In a perfect world, a thematic exhibition traveling to two places is, more or less, the same. I’ve organized many multi-venue shows, and little is more painful than a lender who’ll send his work to, say, one of three. This creates a hole. The thing’s in the show, after all, because it makes a point.

Then there’s the issue of gallery space. I’ve seen many shows, for instance, at the Art Institute and the Grand Palais. They’re different spaces, so an exhibition is going to look different in each one. Things get moved, sometimes squeezed, and themes get scrambled or dropped, or altogether new themes are introduced. They become two different shows.

Ambition and Defiance not only looks better in Chicago. The hang is more generous. The lighting and richly saturated wall colors better suit the drama El Greco delivers. It’s more coherent, too. There’s not a spot of inert space in Chicago, which also got better loans. Both shows have holes, some unavoidable, some willful. It’s a lesson in curating.

El Greco started his career making icons in Crete. It’s not exactly assembly-line work, but icons are small and rote, with flat, gold, airless backgrounds and unemotive saints staring stiffly at the viewer. In his mid-20s, he moved to Venice in hopes of entering the high-end market. He was ambitious and wanted a platform to express his aesthetic vision. Formulaic, tiny icons wouldn’t do. He learned about the magic of color — warm Venetian color — and the magic of oil paint, which allowed glazes and mixed colors. He learned about composition. Possibly, he worked in Titian’s shop.

El Greco moved to Rome in 1570. He developed a portrait business but couldn’t get traction. His first recorded fits of defiance happen here. Briefly, he became part of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese’s circle of artists, never painting for Farnese but working for Farnese as something like a Hollywood-studio contract player. El Greco was mouthy, bragging at one point that he could teach Michelangelo, though dead, Rome’s biggest art star, a thing or two about painting figures. We’re not certain about what particular bridges he burned but, at age 35, he moved to Toledo.

The Assumption of the Virgin, 1577–79, by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos). (The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Nancy Atwood Sprague in memory of Albert Arnold Sprague.)

The Assumption of the Virgin, big and bold, at 13 feet tall, starts the show in Chicago. It’s at the top of the Art Institute’s grand staircase, and it’s the first thing we see. It’s part of the big altarpiece project that brought him to Toledo in 1577.

She looks like a launching space shuttle, with angels added. El Greco was hired in Rome to paint a nine-picture altarpiece for the newly dead Dona Maria de Silva’s funeral chapel in Toledo. Her estate’s executor shopped for artists in Rome since Rome was Europe’s art capital, and he wanted to commission an artist painting in the latest establishment style, modern but safe. He was on a budget, too.

The Holy Trinity, 1577–79, by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos). (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.)

El Greco thoroughly mastered the style he wanted, they agreed on pay, and, most important, he was willing to go to Toledo. The Holy Trinity from the Prado is in this gallery, also by El Greco and originally displayed above The Assumption. The Trinity picture depicts God holding a dead but still handsome, buff, near nude Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

The Chicago show begins with El Greco’s Assumption but summarizes his Crete, Venice, and Rome periods in a bit of wall space on the side. The artist’s early years, his formative period, don’t exactly get short shrift. In Paris, these small pictures were in cases, in a packed narrow space where no one could see them, in an introductory gallery leading to The Assumption of the Virgin. This space was a funnel packed with French people. No one could see unless standing immediately in front of the cases.

In Chicago, these small, early things at least get wall space. Christ Carrying the Cross, from about 1570, is unusually good. It’s a direct portrait-like picture of Jesus. His face isn’t heroic or tortured but soft, innocent, and engaging. He’s all-knowing and looking at the viewer as if to ask, “Are you with me?”

I enjoyed looking at these things. Ambition and Defiance doesn’t even try to make the case that El Greco’s history with icons stayed with him, either in Paris or Chicago or in the catalogues of either venue. First of all, attributions to him from the Crete years are impossible. Years later, El Greco does annihilate three-dimensional space in his paintings, and some have said his experience with icons, with gold backgrounds and flat figures, invited this. This is academic grasping. He relearns how to paint in Venice. There’s a kernel of late El Greco in his early Venice things and his Rome work from 1570 and 1571: packed figures riled by grief, sobbing, of this world but not themselves.

Dona Maria de Silva’s burial chapel was a huge hit. El Greco had arrived, but where was he? Toledo was Spain’s main cathedral city and the headquarters of the country’s Roman Catholic Church. It was a conservative, company town, by no means a backwater but with a small arts-minded circle having good taste. The Paris venue of Ambition and Defiance centers Assumption of the Virgin, to be sure, but contextualizes it with El Greco’s Toledo portraits. I’m not sure that does either justice.

Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino, 1609, by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos). (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Isaac Sweetser Fund. Photograph © 2020 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. )

El Greco is a wonderful portraitist, but I think the Grand Palais, in mixing portraits from Toledo with the Assumption of the Virgin, diminishes both. In Chicago, the portraits get their own gallery. This works well for two reasons. This placement lets works such as the glorious Portrait of Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino shine. It’s from 1609 so it’s late, 30 years after the Dona Maria de Silva chapel. Paravicino was a professor, preacher, and connoisseur who knew El Greco well and shared, as a personality, El Greco’s intensity. Handsome, pale, and angular, dressed in an austere contrast of black and white, he is meant to command a wall. In Paris, he’s displayed in a space with lots happening and gets lost.

View of Toledo, about 1598–99, by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos). (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929.)

In Chicago, the portraits share a gallery with El Greco’s View of Toledo, from around 1600. This makes sense since the subjects mostly were from Toledo. The view is topographically correct — we can still see the scene today — but the dark, apocalyptic sky makes the city seem not of this world. There’s no explanation for this spooky view, and neither iteration explores El Greco as, mostly, a painter of nocturnes. After, say, 1580, almost all his skies are night ones, though most are backdrops for packed figure scenes.

In Chicago, the show focuses on El Greco’s early Toledo years using the Assumption and the Trinity, the anchors of his first big success, and The Disrobing of Christ, from 1580, a midsize replica of his Disrobing of Christ from 1577–79 now in the sacristy of the cathedral in Toledo. Disrobing of Christ was the first time, at least in Toledo, that El Greco sued a patron. The cathedral sacristans thought the scene was doctrinally incorrect (the heads of the crowd are higher than Jesus’s) and narratively too inventive (the three Maries in the foreground aren’t in the Gospel text as witnessing the event). The cathedral wouldn’t pay El Greco until he changed it. He refused.

Three years of litigation followed. El Greco both lost and won. He lost in that he eventually accepted the cathedral’s cut-rate price. He lost in that he was never hired by the cathedral to paint another picture. He lost in that he promised to make the changes the cathedral demanded. But he won in that, in 1585, the cathedral asked him to design and make an elaborate frame for the painting, from which he made more money than he got from making the picture. He won in that he never made the changes. He won in that The Disrobing of Christ is still in the sacristy, front and center, flanked on the right and left by El Greco’s bust paintings of the twelve Apostles.

The Chicago version of the show is at its most dazzling in the last two galleries. Shunned by the cathedral in Toledo, El Greco developed a good core business painting midsize devotional pictures of saints for small churches, colleges, shrines, and hospitals and for altars in upscale homes. The Art Institute compares and contrasts versions of Saint Peter, Francis of Assisi, and Mary Magdalene. Here, we see artists are like car manufacturers, with different models appealing to a variety of price points.

In Paris, these comparisons were in the back of the show and felt aimless. All the art looked sick against light-colored walls and lighting that was too bright. When I walked through the space, I almost heard the air coming out of the balloon, a slow, fizzling, sputtering deflation.

In Chicago, I focused on two things in this gallery, and that’s a tribute to the Art Institute curator, Rebecca Long, who arranged the show there and wrote a great essay on El Greco’s lifelong arguments with patrons over money. Side-by-side displays of two versions of the Holy Family, separated by five or so years, show the evolution of El Greco’s style from emotive but real to ecstatic and otherworldly.

The Holy Family from the early 1580s, from the Hispanic Society, is more earthly. Yes, El Greco gives his figures a stretch. He’s got his characteristic palette of red, yellow, and blue in both. Mary’s face is well defined. Baby Jesus is feeding at her breast. The sky’s mixed with blue and puffy clouds. Ten years later, his Holy Family with Mary Magdalene, from the Cleveland Museum of Art, feels more intense. The sky’s dark and stormy. The figures are more attenuated, like flames. Mary’s vast blue cloak is fascinating. It’s like ocean waves, with white geometric shapes signaling the tops of folds and deeper blues where the fabrics recesses. We barely see Mary Magdalene’s face. Her body is pressed against Mary’s, a long, bold passage of orange cloak from which only her tiny, abstract face pokes.

The Agony in the Garden, 1590/95, by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos). (Toledo Museum of Art, Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey.)

El Greco’s weird, riveting Agony in the Garden, from 1590–95 is here in this room. The Toledo museum owns it, and it’s among the stars of any El Greco show. I’ve seen it many times over the years. The subject of Jesus at Gethsemene is tried and true, but no ever ever conceived it as El Greco did. In a big breach of doctrinal correctness, El Greco borrowed from all four Gospels. Most audacious is his discontinuous, fantasy space. He places the sleeping Apostles in a bubble, implying both their dreaming state and their separation from Jesus’s moment of absorbing the divine light emanating from a hefty angel kneeling on a cliff. Jesus wears a dramatically faceted red robe and kneels on an electric blue blanket. He’s framed by another cliff, which seems to envelope him. A full moon lights a tiny group of soldiers in the distance, coming to arrest him.

This gallery shows El Greco’s creative vision going from simmer to boil, and it heats the visitor’s blood, too. We want frisson in every show as we move to the final gallery, especially for El Greco, who’s all about drama. In Chicago, drama we get, the good kind, not the drama of looting . . . oops, peaceful protesting . . . on Michigan Avenue but the drama of El Greco’s final years and, curatorially, a story well told.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1612–14, by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos). (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid.)

El Greco’s Adoration of the Shepherds, from 1612–14 is there, from the Prado. He painted it for his tomb in Santo Domingo el Antiguo, the same church that housed his first great altarpiece. It’s brilliant to see it end the show because it’s a bookend to The Assumption of the Virgin and The Holy Trinity, his first Toledan altarpiece, done in the late 1570s, and at the beginning of the show. We know the three pictures are by the same artist since El Greco, even in his early days, is a recognizable brand. His twisting figures, restrained or, later, positively propulsive are easy to spot.

Ambition and Defiance is correct in focusing on his portraits, since most people don’t know him for this work. He’s a fantastic portrait painter. El Greco’s faces, even in his religious work, are distinctive. They’re rugged, characterful Spanish faces, men and women we’d find on the street and in the churches. Pale faces, big, brown almond-shaped eyes, a mix of ages, and luscious, dark wavy hair suggest he used lots of models. This feature, as well as his many tiny, focused, detailed landscape elements, usually foregrounded, propose that his pictures start with the real world. Then they soar and dematerialize into another, divine world.

The Adoration of the Shepherds is surreal and a denouement. It’s a rapture picture and best to look at while thinking closely about The Assumption of the Virgin since the key colors and figure organization are the same, but the later picture is souped-up. El Greco never left Spain after 1577. We know he went to Madrid and the Escorial. Aside from that, he worked alone, in a vacuum. The 1580s through the 1620s is a time of stasis and transition in Spanish religious painting. Titian, who did so much work for Philip II, set an aesthetic high, but El Greco had already absorbed Titian in Venice.

Through Bartolomeo Carducho, another Italian transplant, the classicism and naturalism of Caravaggio and the Carracci was just beginning to enter the Spanish aesthetic around 1600. His sculptural figures, serene and corporeal, were far from where El Greco was headed. In Toledo, an old man, obviously stubborn and willful, he pushed his basic formula to extremes. What did he get from the Revolution that Caravaggio made in Rome around 1600? Nothing we can see. Did he know about Carducho’s work? We don’t know, but if he did, I can imagine him muttering “what a bunch of crap.” He was not one to embrace new ideas unless they were his.

I could say “surreal” or “Surreal,” invoking the 20th-century movement. El Greco died in 1614 a regional artist with no students or followers. He was never unknown, but he produced no school. It wasn’t until around 1900 that avant-garde artists and young German art historians revived him. The insatiable and sometimes thieving Picasso knew his work, as his languid, emaciated, stretched Blue Period figures show. Franz Marc admired his palette. The surrealists drew from pictures such as The Adoration of the Shepherds. El Greco’s late work, fervent, ecstatic, dreamlike, inspired their own examination of crazy narratives the mind creates. The first El Greco to come to America is the Paravicino portrait. John Singer Sargent, lover of all things Spanish and having a sharp eye for new trends in art, proposed that the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston buy it in 1904.

Here’s the biggest difference between the two iterations of Ambition and Defiance. Chicago got an array of big altarpiece paintings, and Paris didn’t.

El Greco painted eight or nine major altarpieces. Some of the works are still in churches, notably the Chapel of Saint Joseph in Toledo, the Hospital of Charity in Illescas, and the side altars at Santo Domingo el Antiguo. The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, El Greco’s single opus, never leaves Toledo. The Prado owns most of the big paintings from the College of Dona Maria de Aragon, his one Madrid altarpiece. I don’t know the temper of loan negotiations for Ambition and Defiance but do know that the curators needed at least a couple of the big altarpiece paintings (there are about 20 of them) and Chicago got four — The Assumption and Holy Trinity, The Annunciation from the Bilbao museum, and The Adoration, El Greco’s tomb painting. Paris got only The Assumption. I won’t count The Vision of Saint John, which went to Paris and Chicago. It’s famous and bold, but it’s an unfinished fragment for an altarpiece El Greco barely started before he died.

I thought about what was in the Chicago version of Ambition and Defiance that wasn’t in Paris. The late Annunciation from Bilbao. The late Adoration from the Prado. The Holy Trinity from the Prado, which El Greco painted to hang above the Art Institute’s Assumption of the Virgin. Christ Taking Leave of His Mother, a beauty. The Met’s View of Toledo. There are a few others. These are big failures of alignment, which I hate to see in a two-venue show, and I wonder what happened. The Prado and the Met are not normally stingy. The Grand Palais had a nice display of all the versions of The Purification of the Temple.

The Art Institute has its own gaps, shared with the Grand Palais. One of El Greco’s triumphs, The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice and the Theban Legion, from 1580–82, is also his biggest failure since Philip II didn’t like it, though he paid for it. It’s at the Escorial, which never lends it. El Greco hoped that this opus, his biggest painting and a splendid one, would be a hit with the king and invite royal patronage. It’s an old story — El Greco put the gruesome deaths of the legion in the background and foregrounded the moment Maurice decided to die. The life-sized figures of Maurice and his Theban colleagues stand together, dressed like fancy cavaliers, posing and prancing and looking as dainty as the Three Graces. Philip thought them too stylish, like models posing in a New York fashion show. Philip’s unhappiness is the topic of an insightful catalogue essay with new research, but it’s not in the show.

The Art Institute made a coherent, informative, and visually satisfying show. I enjoyed it. I’m glad I didn’t get shot in Chicago, too. Did the Grand Palais botch the show? Well, it’s El Greco, and El Greco covers a multitude of transgressions and omissions.

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