(b. 1541, Candia, d. 1614, Toledo)

A View of Toledo

Oil on canvas, 121 x 109 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

There are two surviving landscapes by El Greco: The View of Toledo (Metropolitan Museum, New York) and the View and Plan of Toledo (Museo de El Greco, Toledo). They respond to very different objectives: one setting out to document the city in cartographic terms, the other evoking it through a selective arrangement of its most characteristic features. The Metropolitan painting belongs to a tradition of emblematic city views, its approach is interpretative rather than documentary: it seeks to portray the essence of the city rather than to record its actual appearance.

Both in here and in the View and Plan the city is shown from the north, except that El Greco has included only the easternmost portion, above the Tagus river. This partial view would have excluded the cathedral, which he therefore imaginatively moved to the left of the dominant Alcázar or royal palace. The fact that an identical view appears in the Saint Joseph and the Christ Child in the Capilla de San José suggests that the painting was conceived in connection with the San José commission (1597-99). From that time, the town features in many of his paintings: in the Laocoön (National Gallery of Art, Washington), the Christ in Agony on the Cross (Cincinnati Art Museum), the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception (Museo de Santa Cruz), in all of which it takes on an apocalyptical character appropriate to the themes. In his late Saint John the Baptist (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco) the landscape of the Escorial is appropriately introduced.

This is one of the earliest independent landscapes in Western art and one of the most dramatic and individual landscapes ever painted. It is not just a 'View of Toledo', although the topographical details are correct; neither is it 'Toledo at night' or 'Toledo in a storm', other titles which have been attached to the painting: it is simply 'Toledo', but Toledo given a universal meaning - a spiritual portrait of the town. In introducing the view into his paintings he acknowledges how much his art owed to the inspiration of the town, until a few years before the great Imperial Capital and still the great ecclesiastical and cultural centre of Spain - the town isolated on the plain of Castile which he had made his new home, so far from the island of his birth.