The Art of El Greco

1. Introduction 2. Years in Venice 3. Years in Rome
4. Arrival in Toledo 5. Failure at Escorial 6. Mature years
7. Late years 7. Contemporary view 7. Followers

Introduction

The first great Spanish painter was not a native of Spain, but of the Greek island of Crete in the eastern Mediterranean. If the testimony he made towards the end of his life is true, Domenikos Theotokopoulos - for that was his name - was born in 1540 or 1541. Even this, however, is open to some doubt, for all other indications are that he was born some few years later. In vain we seek to know something of the young Domenikos in Crete, where it seems he spent his childhood and his youth, but there is absolutely no information.

One thing is certain, that those years on the Greek island made a deep and permanent impression upon him; an impression concealed during the years of his early manhood spent in Italy in examining the infinity of new impressions of Western Renaissance culture, but whose spirit is remembered in his later years when he was so far from the land of his birth. It is the significance of his Byzantine and medieval origins that Paravicino, the great Toledan poet, acknowledges in his sonnet written on the passing of his friend, the great 'Toledan' painter.

While nothing is known of his parents, or of the Theotokopoulos family, there is every indication that his family was of some status, and able at least to provide a liberal education for Domenikos. It is clear that he was given a thorough schooling in the Greek language and letters, a study which he was to cultivate throughout his life. Francisco Pacheco, the erudite painter and poet from Seville, Velázquez' master and father-in-law, who visited the aged El Greco in Toledo in 1611, tells us he was a 'great philosopher, quick and discerning in his remarks', and the library left on his death contained many works of the Greek philosophers and poets as well as devotional works in his native tongue. There is the same evidence that in Italy he applied himself to the study of the Italian philosophers and poets.

It was almost certainly in Crete, too, that he received his first artistic training, and possibly in the monastery of Saint Catherine, the most important school of painting on the island, to which he seems to make reference in one of the first work painted in Italy by his hand, the Modena Triptych. Monasteries were the only places of learning and artistic training in Crete, still medieval in its culture and linked with the East, and little affected by the great Renaissance in Italy. In Italy the past two and a half centuries had seen the establishment of an entirely new culture, and all the Western world was awake to the new ideas, but in Crete, Byzantine art still flourished - the kind of art practised in Italy by Duccio, who had died some two hundred years before.

The grand, hieratic, abstract images of Byzantine art, in mosaic or miniature, powerful and impressive in their design and colour, had the authority of a millennium of development, and were the expression of the spirit of a whole society. A comparable impression and authority speak from the designs of El Greco's maturity.

Years in Venice

At the end of the fifteenth century, in the reign of the Catholic sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella, the Moors were finally expelled from their last dominion in Spain, some seven hundred years after their first invasion of the peninsula; at the same time there began the real invasion, in the eastern Mediterranean, of Europe by the Turks, that was not to be halted until it reached Vienna. The incursion of the Turks, which threatened Crete, encouraged an exodus from the island, and among those who left was the young scholar and painter.

The earliest known document relating to him, the letter from Giulio Clovio dated 1570, refers to him as a pupil of Titian's. It was natural for a Cretan to make for Venice, for the island was a Venetian dominion. At that time the city was the new home of thousands of 'Greeks' from the Venetian territories of the eastern Mediterranean, and the presence of so many 'Grechi' in the city adds to the difficulty of tracing reference to one individual: Domenikos Theotokopoulos now becomes simply 'il Greco'.

The time of the young Domenikos' removal to Venice could not have been more favourable. It was the time of the apogee of Venetian painting, when Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese were all working in the city. It must have been an immense inspiration to work with the great master of colour. Titian was in his eighties and working in his last grand manner, and on the death in 1564 in Rome of Michelangelo, his only peer, he was the greatest living artist. The year 1564 was possibly not far from the date when El Greco entered his studio.

Perhaps he had the added inspiration of aiding Titian in his important commissions for Philip II of Spain; for in 1567 the master refers to a young pupil assisting him on the Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence, the great masterpiece of his last years destined for the Escorial. At this time El Greco would have heard of the Spanish King's vast project of the Escorial, the monastery and palace which had begun building in 1563, from which the King was to direct his great crusade for the Faith - directed against the heretic at home, the Infidel in the Mediterranean, and towards the conversion of the heathen in the Indies; for the King was seeking painters to decorate his great enterprise. His first feelings of sympathy for the Spanish spirit probably originated at this time: Spain too had been close to the Orient, and had not completely broken with the medieval world; and she could appear at this moment as the one real champion of the Faith. It was to be a long time, however, before he moved to Spain.

He had entered a new world, and was confronted with an infinity of new impressions which he eagerly sought to understand. The ideas and meaning of this new world were as important to the young scholar and painter as their expression in painting. Among the painters he looked to for inspiration, Titian was, if the most important, by no means the only one, and the nature of El Greco's studies in Venice indicates a strong personality with a sense of his own special gifts. He seems to have arrived with no preconceived respect for the authority of an established style or personality, or indeed for the new culture. His attitude, however, implies not disrespect, but a desire to comprehend his new environment. His works in Venice show him trying out the new subject-matter, its new interpretation, and the new techniques.

He was by no means a great artist in Venice. The Modena Triptych could easily be by any one of a number of provincial 'Greek' artists working in the city. It is a work that unfortunately tells us nothing of his painting in Crete. Painted probably not long after his arrival in Venice, there is nothing in it that is transitional. For the flat and relatively rigid geometrical designs of Byzantine art he has substituted the looser, more naturalistic and three-dimensional designs of Italian and Venetian inspirations. The compositions are not original, being borrowed from a variety of sources probably through engravings. The art of engraving had developed considerably in the first half of the sixteenth century and was of inestimable value to a young artist seeking to acquaint himself with the achievements of European art.

The remaining few paintings bear witness to the broad source of his inspiration. He made his own the freedom of the Venetian 'open' technique, of which his master was the supreme exponent. He essays Tintoretto's style, with its employment of space and movement as dramatic elements of the design (Christ healing the Blind). Later, in his efforts to express another reality, that of the spirit, he was to throw aside those dramatic empty spaces and violent perspectives; movement, however, was to remain an essential part of his painting. Similarly, he introduces himself to the possibilities of light as a dramatic element in design, especially perhaps by reference to Bassano; but the naturalism and rustic atmosphere of the Venetian's paintings he found irrelevant, as indeed he could feel little sympathy generally for the Renaissance Italian concession to a human, temporal or local interpretation of the universal and spiritual.

There was little that he did not try out in Venice, and little specifically he could make his own. Nevertheless, it was in Venice that he was introduced to a free technique, to a painting that believed in the primacy of colour, and to the dramatic possibilities of light and movement, that is, to the essential bases of his technique.

Years in Rome

In 1570, the first certain date in El Greco's biography, he moves to Rome, the capital of the Christian world, and the great artistic centre of Italy, where Michelangelo had only recently died. It was there that he was to complete his artistic training and his introduction to the new ideas of the West.

Giulio Clovio, a 'Greek' from Croatia, introduces the young Cretan to Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, to whom he was artistic adviser and in whose famous library he was employed as a miniaturist. We do not know El Greco's self portrait that Clovio so highly extolled, but his report probably shows some over-enthusiasm for his young friend. El Greco does, indeed, prove himself an able follower of Titian in the portrait of Giulio Clovio, probably painted soon after his arrival in Rome, but there is little anticipation of the individual quality of his later works which made him one of the few really great portrait painters of all time.

His introduction to the Cardinal did lead to some patronage, although he does not appear to have received any important commissions in Rome, nor does it seem that the 'young' artist who stayed in the Farnese Palace - he was apparently nearly thirty years of age when he arrived in Rome - had any need to seek commissions for his livelihood. In fact, almost all his paintings in Italy were very small, many of them almost miniatures, and only in Rome are there two or three portraits and one or two compositions of less modest size. What was of consequence to him was his introduction to the circle of scholars and men of religion who frequented the Farnese Library, and also the new impressions of the formal art of Rome.

If El Greco's attitude when he first arrived in Italy was remarkable, his almost naive integrity was even more startling in Rome. The memory of Michelangelo was almost sacred, and had produced something of an artistic tyranny in the city, where nobody could easily question the learned and inhibiting theory that purported to understand and give authority to his style. If the style it encouraged was appropriate to the frigid and correct exposition of dogma, one of the consequences of the deliberations of Trent, it had little to recommend itself to El Greco. He questioned the very basis of its ideal figure art, with its insistence on the primacy of form and drawing, to which colour was a mere adjunct. He could have had even less sympathy for the importance attached to the study of anatomy by contemporary artists in Rome. Similarly the construction of space according to mathematical rules of perspective, although employed in an irrational way by the Roman Mannerists, meant little to him.

Nevertheless, as in Venice, he was able to profit greatly from his stay in the Holy City. Above all, he could derive much from the spirit, if not the letter, of the High Renaissance, especially from Raphael and the early Michelangelo, and his painting in Rome gain in largeness of conception Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple. He was also possibly the only artist of his time to appreciate Michelangelo's late style. If Venice had introduced him so much that was important, Michelangelo's inspired and individual treatment of form in his last years indicated to El Greco the infinite possibilities of the more technique of painting. The small Pietŕ is a direct interpretation in paint of Michelangelo's late sculptured group now in Florence Cathedral, and then in Rome.

In the group of portraits in the Christ driving the Traders from the Temple, he acknowledges his debt to Michelangelo and Titian, and possibly also to Raphael. The painting, first composed in Venice, loses much of its loose, disturbed quality, by contact with Rome. In his compositions in Rome and his first years in Spain, he employs figures directly inspired by the heroic style of Michelangelo (especially the Trinity, the Adoration of the Name of Jesus and the Martyrdom of St Maurice and his Legions). Later, they were to go, once he was able to replace them by his own.

Contemporary Roman Mannerist painting was also not without its fruitful influence: the vertical compositions and shallow construction of space pointed the way to the elimination of three-dimensional space (especially Martyrdom of St Maurice and his Legions); and the combination of the more vivid and less natural colour of Rome with the richer, more substantial colour of Venice helped to lay the basis of his own personal and dramatic use of colour.

It is clear that he had very little in common with the painters of Rome. Neither could he be entirely in sympathy with the Humanist atmosphere of the Papal City: the 'divine' of Michelangelo was a reference to the gods of pagan mythology, as the conception of the heroic was derived from the spirit of ancient history and myth. El Greco's prototype of the great artist was to be Saint Luke; his prototype of the heroic, the great martyrs of the Faith. To El Greco, the Roman brand of Humanism celebrated the greatness of Man - of the individual - on account of his material potentialities; El Greco, from medieval Crete, believed in the importance of Man on account of his unique spiritual being, through which, alone, the meaning of the Universe could be fulfilled. His discussions with the Spanish Humanists in the Farnese Library would have indicated an attitude in Spain - where it was possible for the great Gothic cathedrals of Salamanca and Segovia to be erected at the same time as the Escorial - closer to his own, and it was from them that he received his first important commission, and the opportunity to go to Spain. The news, received in Rome in 1571, of the great victory over the Turk at Lepanto, off the Greek mainland, must have encouraged some sympathy in the Greek artist for Spain's crusade, as later it was to inspire his Adoration of the Name of Jesus.

It is unnecessary to believe that he was forced to leave Rome on account of the hostility of the artists caused by his presumption in offering to paint a 'Last Judgment' not inferior to Michelangelo's, if the work were pulled down, as related by Mancini some half a century later. At the time that El Greco was in Rome there were proposals to cover up the 'indecent' parts of Michelangelo's great work in the Sistine Chapel, composed entirely of nude figures, and Mancini no doubt merely relates a rumour, which however, certainly reflects something of El Greco's attitude.

Rome was unpropitious to his genius. In 1576 he received the offer of an important commission for Toledo, made by the Dean of Toledo Cathedral through the agency of his brother in Rome, and he accepted - surely with the hope eventually of working for the Escorial.

Arrival in Toledo

Certainly the Dean's brother must have given a good account of the painter, for immediately on his arrival in Toledo and before starting the work for the church of Santo Domingo he was commissioned to paint the Espolio for the Cathedral. For the first time he had been given the opportunity to paint on a monumental scale. To express his pleasure at seeing the fulfilment of his ambition so near he offered to accept the small sum of 1000 ducados instead of the 1500 offered for the work for Santo Domingo, which involved the designing of the whole scheme of decoration. The two commissions were to occupy him fully for two years, and their importance inspired him to produce a whole series of masterpieces (Assumption of the Virgin, Trinity, Resurrection, Espolio).

He was now thirty-five years of age. In Italy, he had completed his artistic training, and he no longer needed to look to art for his inspiration. The first real application of the lessons learnt was not until he arrived in Spain, and his painting really began with these two commissions.

Each painting was treated as a separate problem, as indeed later each subject was to decide its own appropriate colour, light, pattern and rhythm. In the first work, the Assumption, he seeks to treat in his own way a composition finally of Venetian inspiration; in the second, the Trinity, it is a composition essentially inspired by Michelangelo, and a grand development of his own Pietŕ painted in Rome. In the Adoration of the Shepherds, the problem is especially that of light; and in the Resurrection, dramatic movement, and a more supernatural light. The Saint John the Evangelist attempts to express the heroic in his own way; and the majestic Christ of the Espolio is the first of his completely personal images, in which pattern, movement and colour, type and gesture are in complete harmony, and in accord with the one expression. This painting is also the one of greatest variety and vitality in the handling.

In all these paintings, he begins to develop his own expressive colour. Colour and light begin to combine, and take on a quality of flux. Space is little more than implied, and the distinction between sky and earth goes: the motifs of the open tomb of the Assumption, the rocks of the Resurrection and the ground of the Espolio, do not disturb the essential verticality of the compositions. The figures have lost much of their corporeality, but not their grandeur, by their surface treatment in colour and light. In this development, the nude figure of Christ of the Trinity, inspired by Michelangelo's heroic figure style, is the least advanced, and the single draped figure of Saint John the Evangelist, the most advanced. Draperies are indeed at this stage treated more freely than the figures, and become an expressive element in themselves. Both shade and light are active in colour, and if they still imply modelling of the forms, they do not stress the quality of relief.

Each composition is inspired by its appropriate movement: the grand slow tempo of the soaring image of the Virgin of the Assumption; the urgent and arrested rhythm of the shepherds of the Adoration; and above all the tremendous contained movement of the Christ of the Espolio. Movement was to be an essential element of his painting.

All the paintings are full of reminiscences of Italy (as illustrated e.g. by the iconography of the Assumption), and it is some few years before they disappear. He has, however, started on the path he was to follow to its conclusion, and the advance made during the two years was immense. If he were to express the spiritual, it would be by other than material means, and the process of dematerialisation has begun. Neither corporeality, nor a distinction between earth and sky, belonged to the realm of the spirit; neither could the ideal figure art of Rome with its pagan implications, nor the sensual art of Venice with its temporal concessions, be reconciled to the expression of his view of the essential spiritual meaning of the Universe. He now sought to create a painting from colour and light, pattern and movement, and without any direct reference to the art of the past or present.

His unyielding attitude before interference with his artistic interpretation of a subject is brought out in the arguments over the valuation of the Espolio; El Greco ignored the demands made by the Cathedral authorities - probably largely to support a low valuation - to make certain drastic changes to his painting. The remarks of El Greco's valuers, when he finally agreed to accept about a third of the previous valuation, that 'if the painting should be valued at its true worth, there would be few or none prepared to pay', express the startling impression made on the artists in Toledo by El Greco's first works.

Shortly after he arrived in Toledo he must have made acquaintance with a Spanish lady, Jerónima de las Cuevas, who became his life-long companion, and who in 1578 gave him a son, Jorge Manuel, to whom he became a devoted father. All we know of the lady whom he never married is the sympathetic portrait painted apparently at the beginning of their acquaintance. (He painted her portrait again fifteen years later.) He introduces us to his son on a number of occasions (Burial of Count Orgaz, Portrait of Jorge Manuel and Virgin of Charity).

Failure at the Escorial

El Greco was recognised as an artist of outstanding merit, and he had met with sympathetic patrons. In 1579, immediately after the conclusion of his first commissions for Toledo, the long-desired opportunity to work for the Escorial was offered him. He had already painted the Adoration of the Name of Jesus for the King, and he was now invited to paint specifically for the Escorial. Navarrete had died, and Philip II was looking for someone to replace the painter he so admired. El Greco put everything into the painting, the Martyrdom of Saint Maurice and his Legions, and produced a work of astounding power and originality. Already in the Espolio, he had daringly introduced the grand passage of vivid red in the mantle of Christ; in the Saint Maurice, an intense blue animates the whole composition. The complementary strident yellow enhances the powerful and moving impression. Before he started to paint the picture he had already decided on the colour that would best symbolise the event, and this becomes an essential consideration in all his subsequent painting.

He worked for two years on the painting: if he were successful, his great ambition would be fulfilled. But he was to be disappointed. The splendid masterpiece of painting did not please the King, who commissioned another artist to make a substitute. El Greco turned to his first patrons in Toledo, and he was not given another opportunity to work for the King.

It was perhaps inevitable, and, in the event, it was fortunate. His genius was too independent to serve the austere and rigid demands of the Escorial. His art, also, was not concerned with the militant aspect of religion, in which the Inquisition and its autos-da-fé played so important a part in Spain at that time. But in Toledo, the great cultural and ecclesiastical centre of Spain, he was to find a sympathetic atmosphere, a select circle of friends among the men of religion, scholars and poets of the town, and an appreciative and loyal clientele. The poets Góngora and Paravicino were among his friends; the great mystics Saint Teresa of Jesus and Saint John of the Cross visited the town. It was a time in Spain of great religious fervour and spiritual activity - possibly found in its most concentrated form in Toledo - which reached its climax in the years El Greco was in the town.

Mature years

The failure at the Escorial closed five years of uninterrupted activity in Spain. There followed a few years of respite before any comparable commissions came his way. For El Greco this was a period of reflection, the outcome of which was the final declaration of his aesthetic. If his efforts before were particularly directed towards preparation for the Escorial, his time was now employed in getting to know more intimately the atmosphere of Toledo, in meeting with kindred spirits, and in coming to terms with himself. He finally succeeds in eliminating all direct references to the art of Venice and Rome, and the process of dematerialisation is continued.

To this period belong the Saint Mary Magdalene, which still reveals its Venetian, specifically Titianesque, inspiration, and the Saint Sebastian whose Roman derivation is still apparent. At this time too he painted the Immaculate Conception, in which for the first time there is a clear recollection of his early impressions of Byzantine art. These are however among the last paintings to make any clear references to the art of Byzantium, Venice or Rome.

His first completely personal work, the Burial of the Count of Orgaz, was painted in 1586, when he was forty-five. In this painting any description of space, or of the corporeality of the figures, has completely gone, allowing an undisturbed expression of the spiritual atmosphere of the scene, and of the spiritual or psychological presence of the participants. To El Greco there could not be the easy concession of depicting Heaven and Earth as two separate things, physically distinct as the earth and sky. To him, as to a Saint Teresa of Jesus, the spiritual was omnipresent: present in the celestial visitors who lay the body to rest, and expressed in the remarkable pattern formed by the two Saints and in the colour of their vestments; present in the souls of men, and realised in the activity of the earthly participants in the miraculous event; pervading the whole scene, and expressed in the variety, splendour and activity of the colour and light. And the spiritual was the only significant reality.

There is absolutely no confusion, but a grand equilibrium, yet movement is an essential part of the expression: the composition, shapes, gestures, colour and light are made active and living symbols. These separate elements, and the particular rhythm that informs them, derive from the meaning of the supernatural image or event. Henceforth, El Greco was to express the spiritual by strictly extra-natural means, and the development of his paintings was in the direction of a greater simplification of the means and a greater concentration of the expression.

If the popular success of the Burial of the Count of Orgaz depended largely on the 'life-like portrayal of men of Toledo of his time', he had become, for his life-time at least, an almost legendary figure to Toledans.

After the completion of the painting some ten years were to elapse before, in 1596, he was again given any comparable commissions (among them the altars of the Saint Joseph Chapel in Toledo). It was nevertheless a period of great activity, in which he was engaged on a host of smaller commissions (Agony in the Garden, Coronation of the Virgin, Holy Family. In this decade he formulated his repertoire of subjects and worked out their individual interpretation. (See in detail in the Subjects Section.)

El Greco's repertoire of subjects concerns itself with the central personalities and mysteries of the Faith: Annunciation, Nativity, Baptism, Christ on the Cross, Resurrection, Pentecost. These six subjects he composed together in the grand unified programme dedicated to the 'life of Christ', for the Colegio de Dońa Maria in Madrid. It is clear he must have played an important part in the devising of the programme, and certainly in its interpretation.

In his interpretation of these subjects, the grand poetry of the Holy Scriptures was an integral and essential part of the mystery, and it is expressed in the setting as in the whole pictorial conception. The apocalyptical character of his painting increases; and it is appropriate that two of his last works were the Immaculate Conception the great masterpiece of his last years, and a subject of purely supernatural implication, which he related to Saint John's vision of the Apocalypse, and Saint John's Vision of the Opening of the Fifth Seal, in both of which he supremely realises the tremendous visionary poetry of the Revelations.

The years 1600 to 1610 witnessed the full development of his powers as a portrait painter. His personal style of portrait painting begins with the Burial of the Count of Orgaz, and closes with his great masterpiece, the portrait of his friend Paravicino, painted in 1609 or 1610.

The Saint Joseph and the Christ Child, was painted in 1597, the year which marks the beginning of a whole series of important commissions which keep him occupied until his death in 1614.

Late years

Toward the end of his life, the supernatural takes over. The late Immaculate Conception is not so much an expression of the mystery as its realisation in painting. A parallel expression is found only in the mystic poets of his time:

'On a Night dark and unfathomable, as anguish was consumed in flames of Love . . . I left my house, tranquil and calm, unseen and I not seeing, without any guide but the light that burned in my heart, . . . more resplendent than the Noon . . .' In his 'Songs of the Soul', Saint John of the Cross, El Greco's almost exact contemporary, expresses the same infinity of spiritual space, in which an all-resplendent light and an infinite darkness are compatible.

The towering, rock-like form of Saint Peter, and the ecstatic Visitation, with its strange impression of the 'coming together of two celestial bodies in space' (Camón-Aznar, Dominico Greco, 1950), belong to the same commission as the Immaculate Conception. His Penitent Saint Jerome is a purely spiritual presence, whose material being is dissolved in the impassioned handling. The tremendous vision of Saint John belongs to his last unfinished commission for the Hospital de San Juan Bautista, Toledo, and this vision of the Apocalypse fitly closes his career.

Contemporary view on El Greco

It was in 1611 that Pacheco visited El Greco in Toledo. The erudite Sevillian painter was collecting material for his 'Book of Portraits' of eminent men and his 'Art of Painting', and made the journey to meet the great painter of Toledo whose fame had reached Seville. The Sevillian gives an honest and discerning report, in which admiration and understanding are mixed with a certain perplexity. It is the only contemporary account of El Greco's personality, ideas and methods of painting - apart from the eulogies of Góngora and Paravicino. Pacheco's learned theories, if not his real sympathies, sought to uphold the primacy of Italian Renaissance painting, whose one exemplar was Michelangelo. He asks El Greco his opinion of Michelangelo as a painter, and El Greco shrewdly replies that he was not a painter, but that he was 'a good man'. This was one 'discerning remark' not appreciated by Pacheco, who was however not too surprised, for Domenikos was 'singular in everything'. There is, indeed, a truth in El Greco's reply: Michelangelo was essentially the great sculptor of the century, concerned with the human figure, form and drawing: El Greco was the great painter of the century, concerned with colour, whose art had less in common with that of the great Italian master than with that of the great contemporary poets and mystics, Paravicino and Góngora, Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Jesus. There is, however, a remarkable consonance between the late endeavours of Michelangelo as a sculptor and El Greco as a painter, each of whom exploited to the limits the expressive possibilities of their respective materials - form and colour.

Pacheco watched El Greco paint, and describes for us his 'open' and flexible technique; his diligence in making small-scale preparatory paintings; how he began with painting the design in red or black chiaroscuro - not a drawing, but the first broad statement of the design and movement in tone. The more general and 'certain' course was to make a precise delineation of the forms, and then 'fill in' with the 'final colours'. El Greco's method included no drawing or filling in, but was essentially the heightening of the first broad preliminary painting by superimposing passages and touches of colour, until he had given a final variety and effectiveness to the colours, and vitality to the design. It was the last essential touches, those 'sketchy brushstrokes made to affect dexterity', that Pacheco was unable to understand. His infinitely flexible technique, including the use of superimposed glazes of colour as well as touches of pure paint, sought to give that living quality to his paintings, observed by Góngora: 'His brush gave life and soul to the canvas.'

Followers

Like all great independent geniuses, El Greco could have no real followers. His own son was no more than a superficial imitator, who could not appreciate the essential inspiration that informed his painting. He was the one outstanding painter of his age, and no painter has better expressed the spirit of a particular time and place. He was understood by only a few in his time, and soon after his death was more or less forgotten. It is true that Velázquez and Zurbaran, who began studying painting in the 1610s, were able to find inspiration in the great Toledan's portrait and devotional art, and two hundred years later, Goya certainly paid homage to the master when he painted his Taking of Christ to hang next to the Espolio in the Sacristy of Toledo Cathedral. Delacroix the great colourist, owned one of his paintings. To the exponents of naturalism and Impressionism El Greco's art could mean little. Cézanne's copying of the portrait of Jerónima de las Cuevas appears appropriately as a herald of the recognition that was soon to follow. The first real appraisal was Cossio's work published in 1908. It is El Greco's independence and artistic integrity, and the essential freedom and painterly quality of his work that have appealed to the present century.

The resurrection of his painting in our times has encouraged attempts to make up a biography of the man. The very absence of records has encouraged a belief in his exotic character, and has allowed various misinformed explanations of his art. It is no longer necessary to consider defective vision, mental aberration or drug addiction as explanations for his painting. Neither can we know him better by seeking to put an intriguing interpretation on his relationship with Dońa Jerónima. The fact is, we know practically nothing about the man: time has preserved for us only the splendid revelations of one of the greatest and most individual masters of colour.