Renaissance Painting

1. Introduction
2. Leonardo's Influence 3. Eclecticism
4. Portrait Painting 5. El Greco's Painting


In Spain, as in other European countries, sixteenth-century painting is characterized by eclecticism, or rather by the synthesis of a number of different trends: national tendencies, the influence of the great Italian masters, and certain elements of the art of Northern and Central Europe. In the early years of the century, the formula was thoroughly Quattrocento, but the use of oils and a growing interest in naturalistic representation and the manipulation of space nullified or progressively diluted the surviving Gothic characteristics. With the passage of time gold backgrounds became increasingly rare, and landscapes gained in breadth and luminosity. Many Spanish artists visited Italy, attracted by the fame of the Italian schools. While there, some underwent a technical and aesthetic transformation, and, on returning to Spain, contributed decisively to the growth of the Renaissance spirit, spreading their version of the great lessons to be learned from the art of Leonardo, Raphael, and Michelangelo. These influences remained dominant until the middle of the century, though, as we have mentioned, not without interference from Flanders, Germany, and Holland.

The most important characteristic distinguishing the Renaissance painting of Spain from that of Italy, France, and Germany relates more to subject matter than to style. It is the Spanish rejection of mythological themes and the cult of the nude. The Spanish artist of the sixteenth century·shared the spirituality of hís Gothic forebears; in general, he worked for the churches and monasteries, or for nobles with similar religious preoccupations. Many of the better paintings of this period are imbued with the mysticism of the ascetic, and are remote not only from thc sensualism associated with paganistic themes, but also from the cult of art for art's sake and sheer aestheticism. The foreigners who came to work in Spain during this period, which, it must be remembered, coincided with the peak of Spanish imperial power, were quickly assimilated. Far from resisting the established tradition in Spain, they sometimes became among its most passionate interpreters.

The influence of Leonardo

Spanish painting was given a new and more determined thrust in the direction of the Renaissance by two artists trained in Italy: Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina and Fernando Llanos. In 1507 they were jointly commissioned to paint the great retable still in Valencia cathedral. The styles of both masters are distinguished by clarity of composition, a taste for static poses and attitudes, and an appreciation of architecture, less for the sake of the prolific ornamental detail, of which other painters of the period were so fond, than for the balance of masses. In the scenes of this retable, taken from the life of the Virgin, their debt to Leonardo is very obvious. Although the styles of the two painters have much in common, Yáñez's manner is distinguished by the greater monumentality of his figures. Llanos appears to be more addicted to the emotional gesture and the troubled expression. After 1513, the two artists worked independently, Yáñez producing the notable St Catherine in the Prado, the Epiphany and Pieta of Cuenca cathedral, painted in 1531, and the Last Judgment in the March collection in Mallorca. Together, Yáñez and Llanos exerted a widespread influence on the schools of Murcia and Valencia.

Unlike fifteenth-century art, Catalan painting of this period, that is, of the first quarter of the sixteenth century, did not revolve about a group of exceptional personalities. Individual masters, mostly foreigners, produced work of some interest in different centers throughout the province, particularly in Gerona, Tarragona, and Barcelona. The most eminent of these artists was Ayne Bru, a painter of German origin, to whom we owe the magnificent Martyrdom of St. Cucufate, preserved in the Museum of Catalan Art. This painting is remarkable for the sensuous opulence of the modeling, which is rich in tactile qualities and suggestive of the style of Leonardo. Gerona was the home of a very gifted painter known as Juan de Borgoña (of Burgundy). His work also appears in Valencia, and his art, with its wealth of forms and colours, was known along the entire Mediterranean coast of Spain.


About the year 1500 a number of talented painters were at work in the principal cities of southern and central Spain. Their art is often eclectic, comprising both Northern and Italian elements, with the balance weighted somewhat in favor of the latter. In Toledo, the first third of the sixteenth century is dominated by the personality of Juan de Borgoña. In 1495 he worked in Toledo cathedral, together with Pedro Berruguete. His painting is remarkable for its exquisite sensitivity, its balance, and a warm lyricism intolerant of all excess. There is evidence of early exposure to Florentine influences, together with hints of the Gothic, especially strong in the fall of the draperies. Luminous colours and the subtle organization of space are the distinguishing features of Juan de Borgoña's magnificent decorations in the chapter house of Toledo cathedral (1509-11), in which the landscape plays such an important part. In addition to executing several retables in Toledo, the artist also completed the retable of the Cathedral of Avila, begun by Pedro Berruguete, which includes an exquisite Annunciation. In his studio work, which is rather voluminous, some of the more valuable qualities of the master tend to be neutralized. During this same period some outstanding paintings were being produced in Seville by Alejo Fernández. In 1496 he is reported in Cordova, but soon afterward he moved to Seville, where he continued to live until his death in 1545. Strong in composition, Fernández was particularly skillful in handling his figures, which are distributed with imagination and judgment and modeled with unusual grace, as may be seen in his Epiphany in Seville cathedral. The cities of Sevilla and Saragossa possess important examples of his work, in particular the Virgin of the Navigators from the Alcázar of Seville, in which the sober and balanced composition and the nobility of form foreshadow Zurbarán.

During the second third of the sixteenth century, a number of Spanish painters fell heavily under the influence of Raphael. Typical in this respect, in Valencia, are the members of the Masip family: Vicente Masip and his son, Juan de Juanes. The work of the latter, mostly later than 1550, is distinguished by a certain formalistic elaboration of the directions taken by his father, and is by no means lacking in grace or skill. Juan de Juanes was the creator of a group of models of Spanish piety. His work is harmonious, rhythmically transparent, and well designed. These characteristics are particularly evident in his more popular compositions, such as the Holy Family in the Academy of San Fernando, the Redeemer in the Valencia Museum, and the Last Supper in the Prado Museum. His father's most important achievement is the retable in Segorbe cathedral, painted about 1530.

In Seville, the second third of the sixteenth century also witnessed the introduction of a style of painting that reflected the ascendancy of Raphael. In this center, the most important artist of the period were undoubtedly of Northern origin: the Dutchman Fernando Esturmio (Storm), and the Fleming Pedro de Campaña (Kempener). The latter, the more gifted of the two, was born in Brussels in 1503. He was trained in Italy, but in 1537 he is known to have been employed in the Cathedral of Seville. Shortly before 1563 he returned to his native country. The style of this master includes elements derived from Michelangelo, but these are offset by original plastic qualities and a sense of drama. One of Campaña's key works is the Descent from the Cross (1547) in Seville cathedral, a painting that anticipates the Baroque of Rubens and was much admired by other Spanish artists, particularly Murillo. Campaña had a more amiable and genuinely Raphaelesque side, evident in the altarpiece of the Marshal's Chapel in Seville cathedral, which he was commissioned to paint in 1555. His progress toward the Baroque and his interest in the rendering of light are revealed in his admirable Adoration of the Magi, which was painted in 1557 (church of Santa Ana, Seville).

There is no space to mention all the numerous artists working in Spain at this time, but we must refer, however briefly, to the paintings of that sculptor of genius, Alonso Berruguete, in particular to his Nativity in the Valladolid Museum, and to the work of Pedro Machuca, an extraordinary architect.

Luis de Morales (called El Divino), born in 1510, was a distinctly original personality. The distinctive features of his style - a painstaking technique inherited from the Flemish masters, and elongated forms that foreshadow the art of El Greco - are especially evident in the works of his final period. Morales painted numerous versions of the Virgin and Child, sometimes with the infant St.John, and touching visions inspired by the theme Ecce Homo, which are among his most popular works. Sensitivity to content and concentration on the sacred drama are the chief characteristics of this typical representative of Spanish asceticism.

The third quarter of the sixteenth century brought a strong desire for innovation. This coincided with the infiltration of Mannerism, openly introduced by the Italian painters who decorated the Escorial, and a renewed interest in the Venetians, particularly in their colours. The painter who best represents these tendencies is Juan Fernández Navarrete, called "the Mute" because of the affliction from which he had suffered since boyhood. After a "short" stay in Italy, where he had contact with Titian's studio, he started work in the Escorial in about 1568. Thanks to the forcefulness of the image, his realistic and merciless version of the Martyrdom of St. James (1571) is one of his best known works, but his Adoration of the Magi (1575), also in the Escorial, better reveals his painterly preoccupation with light, chiaroscuro, and colour. Navarrete died in Toledo in 1579.

Portrait Painting

The art of the second half of the sixteenth century was by no means exclusively religious. Portrait painting also flourished. The Dutch portraitist Anthonis Mor (1519?-1576) was followed by his pupil Alonso Sánchez Coello (1531/32-1588), who gave a decided impetus to this genre with work of the caliber of his portraits of Philip II and the royal children Don Carlos and Isabella Clara Eugenia (Prado Museum). This artist has rightly been praised for his humanity, which, in its intimate relationship to plastic values, makes him the direct precursor of Velázquez portraits. The preoccupation with tactile qualities and the convincing representation of materials, characteristic of Sánchez Coello, is even more noticeable in the work of his pupil and successor, Juan Pantoja de la Cruz (1551-1609). In his somewhat hieratic portraits, the character of the subject is of less interest than the verisimilitude of jewels, lace, silks, brocades, and nielloed armor. Pantoja, like Sánchez Coello, painted religious subjects as well as portraits, and in this genre he worked with greater freedom, achieving a more truly pictorial effect. He was also absorbed in the problems of dark and light, as revealed in his Resurrection (1605), now in the Hospital of Valladolid.

The last quarter of the sixteenth century produced a variety of painters who, for all their interest, are typical transitional figures, associated with a period of fluidity that was soon to crystallize in a new conception of painting. Prominent among these artists were Pablo de Céspedes in Cordova, and, in Seville, Vasco de Pereira and Francisco Pacheco, the teacher and father-in-law of Velázquez, who in his latter years (1649) published an interesting treatise, Art of Painting.

El Greco's Painting

The great revolution that burst on the mediocrity of late sixteenth-century Spanish painting turned largely upon the genius of El Greco, Italian-trained under Venetian masters, yet a supreme individualist and the possessor of a technique as advanced and effective as any in Europe. There is something miraculous about the outcome of a career so full of internal contradictions and exposed to so many apparently conflicting influences. Born on the island of Crete in 1541, Domenicos Theotokopoulos must have begun to paint in the Byzantine icon tradition, which is discernible in much of his later work. Later, under the spell of Venice, he determined upon a very different course. In 1570 Giulio Clovio noted an encounter in Rome with "a young native of Candia, a pupil of Titian, who in my judgment seems to have a rare gift for painting." In fact, El Greco did develop his singular talents under Titian and Tintoretto and produced work of astonishing power even during these youthful years in Italy. Venetian influence is apparent in the Portrait of a Man (National Gallery, Copenhagen), in the Healing of the Blind Man in the Dresden Pinakothek, and in other paintings. In Rome, in spite of his diatribes against him, El Greco learned much from Michelangelo, acknowledging, in particular, the grandeur of his conception of the human body, stressed by tensions that reveal a supernatural world.

News of the building of the Escorial, and the example of the Italian painters who went to Spain to work on its decoration, may have influenced El Greco's decision to seek new goals. His mysticism must have enabled him to identify himself with the Spanish ideals of the Golden Century more completely than with the sensuousness and literary themes of Italian art. In 1577 he was engaged in painting the great retable of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, dominated by two great panels, The Trinity and The Assumption, now in museums in Madrid and Chicago. The El Greco of this period is still very restrained, concerned with closed forms, and able to invest his sacred themes with a sense of monumentality, while finding a means of self expression in the tumultuous life of his colours.

El Greco's work is distinguished by a marked interest in human types, to which his success as a portrait painter must certainly be attributed. At the same time, this success is founded less on objectivity than on a talent for selecting models sympathetic to a conception of the world exalted by religious feeling. The culmination of his art is to be found in the paintings based on the Gospels and other sacred themes, such as the famous Espolio, painted in 1577-1579 (sacristy of Toledo cathedral). El Greco used the folds of robes and draperies to establish a rhythmical movement suggestive of the medieval style, but handled with the freedom of the Baroque. The reflections and textures of the fabrics are rendered with marvelous skill. In 1580-1582 he painted his striking version of the Martyrdom of St Maurice (Escorial), a carefully studied composition with an original colour scale of cold blues, yellows, greens, and violets. This work, commissioned by Philip II, failed to please the monarch and was refused.

Thereafter El Greco turned from a course that, if pursued, would have brought him greater wealth and honours. In 1586-1588 he executed one of his masterpieces, preserved in the church of Santo Tomé in Toledo, for which it was painted. This is the Burial of Count of Orgaz, a magnificent composition, based on a fourteenth-century legend, in which the artist expresses his disdain for externals and his interest in the "interior light" and the human form. In this picture the figures of knights and monks form a frieze beneath which two saints support the body of the count. The splendors of the heavenly realm are blazoned across the distant sky. The ascent to Heaven was a favorite subject of El Greco, a theme reiterated in his rhythms, chiaroscuro, and colour. In these paintings the mystical element is counterbalanced by a profoundly human interest in the earthly model. In this connection it is enough to note the portrait of Cardinal Fernando Nino de Guevara in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the impressive St Ildefonso preserved in Washington.

El Greco was interested in landscape less for the sake of its anecdotal value and natural beauty than for its spiritual qualities and the atmosphere. This is the mood of his masterly View of Toledo (1597 to 1599), also in the Metropolitan Museum. The artist also had to satisfy a steady demand for pictures of the saints. He was therefore obliged to resort to the expedient of painting them in series, sometimes with the aid of assistants. In this way he produced numerous versions, closely similar or with certain variations, of his conception of St Francis of Assisi, the repentant St Peter, St Jerome, Mary Magdalene, and so on. In his maturity he allowed freer rein to a personal tendency to distort and elongate his figures, as in the Resurrection in the Prado (1607) and in the Opening of the Fifth Seal in the Metropolitan Museum. During his final period, this tendency was exaggerated and combined with a process of simplification and elimination of detail and a frequcnt indulgence in contortion. These qualities he brilliantly combined with the most sumptuous palette, as may be seen in the Laocoön in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

It seems probable that the artist accepted the assistance of collaborators in some of the series he painted in the final years of his life, but it is no less certain that he preserved until the very end that absolute mastery over his art so conspicuous in the superb Twelve Apostles in the Casa del Greco. Francisco Preboste and the painter's son, Jorge Manuel, were probably his principal collaborators, while Luis Tristán was the best of his pupils.