In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section El Greco

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Catalogues Raisonnés and Museum Catalogues
  • Collections of Essays
  • Exhibition Catalogues
  • Patronage and Clientele
  • Crete
  • Venice and Rome
  • Toledo
  • Portraiture
  • El Greco as a Learned Artist
  • Style and Technique
  • Modern Reception

Renaissance and Reformation El Greco
Laura R. Bass, Tanya J. Tiffany
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 July 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0199


Domenikos Theotokopoulos (c. 1541–1614), known as El Greco, was born on the Greek island of Crete, but he is most renowned for his long career in Spain. El Greco began his professional life as a successful icon painter and, in the first of many journeys, moved from Crete to Venice in 1567 or 1568. There, he remade his art on the examples of Renaissance masters, in particular Titian and Tintoretto. Several contemporaries described him as Titian’s disciple, but it is unclear whether he worked in the master’s studio or merely emulated his style. El Greco relocated to Rome in 1570; for a time he enjoyed the protection of the powerful Roman Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, although he apparently received few commissions in the city. Perhaps hoping to join the many Italian painters working for King Philip II, El Greco traveled to Spain in 1577 and shortly thereafter to Toledo, where he settled definitively in 1583. El Greco’s critical fortunes have changed dramatically over the centuries. His contemporaries differed in their appraisals of his art, recognizing his immense talent but often censuring his pictorial innovations. He won particular admiration as a portraitist and gained renown for his sacred works. At the same time, several of his religious paintings were criticized for contravening the strict standards of decorum that emerged in the wake of the Council of Trent. For much of the 17th and 18th centuries, writers disparaged what they perceived as the extravagance of his late painterly style. El Greco was discovered outside Spain in the 19th century, when Romantic writers characterized him as a rebellious genius, and painters such as Manet embraced his bold color and loose brushwork. Castilian scholars of the early 20th century associated El Greco with a quintessential “Spanishness” (despite his Greek origins) and argued that his painting embodied the mysticism of religious figures such as Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross. Others claimed him as a forerunner of modern art. Overall, the view of the mystical artist endured for decades, even as some scholars proposed spurious theories that El Greco suffered from astigmatism and used madmen as models. In the 1980s, scholarly opinion was transformed following the publication of writings by the painter himself, which demonstrated that he was an intellectual fully schooled in Italian artistic theory. El Greco brought his humanistic learning to bear on sacred and secular imagery in ways that remain to be fully explored.

The authors are grateful to Lucia Abramovich for her assistance in the initial stages of this article.

General Overviews

The publication of El Greco’s own writings (see Marías and Bustamante García 1981; Salas and Marías 1992, both cited under Primary Sources) informed a significant corpus of monographs and biographies written on the artist. Cloulas 1993 provides a judicious overview of El Greco’s life and art (including his artistic theory) and is therefore useful for French-language readers, although it lacks a strong scholarly apparatus. Of greater rigor, Álvarez Lopera 1993 studies the span of El Greco’s career from his Cretan origins to his long stay in Italy and years in Spain. Marías 2013 follows a similar chronological and geographical trajectory but provides a fuller account of the cultural, social and intellectual contexts of his artistic production and theory. Also valuable is Marías’s brief but informative reference article on El Greco in Grove Art Online (Greco, El).

  • Álvarez Lopera, José. El Greco: La obra esencial. Madrid: Sílex, 1993.

    Studies El Greco’s full trajectory from his beginnings in Crete through his years in Italy and maturity in Toledo, with emphasis on his appropriation of diverse artistic and cultural influences. Chapters are organized chronologically and contain sections devoted to major works.

  • Cloulas, Annie. Greco. Paris: Fayard, 1993.

    An overview of El Greco’s life, work, and critical fortunes, which incorporates information from the artist’s writings and previously published documentary evidence. Footnotes and bibliography are limited.

  • Marías, Fernando. “Greco, El.” Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, 1998.

    A useful overview of El Greco’s biography, production, artistic theory, and posthumous reputation written by a noted specialist. Includes bibliography. Available by subscription. An earlier version is available in print: Fernando Marías, “El Greco,” in The Dictionary of Art (Vol. 13. Edited by Jane Turner, 339–346. New York: Grove, 1996).

  • Marías, Fernando. El Greco: Life and Work: A New History. Translated by Paul Edson and Sander Berg. London: Thames and Hudson, 2013.

    A revised edition of El Greco: Biografía de un pintor extravagante (1997), Marías’s biographical monograph elucidates every phase of El Greco’s career, building upon recent documentary discoveries. In particular, it incorporates El Greco’s annotations on Vitruvius and Vasari into the interpretation of his works (cited under Primary Sources). Published in Spanish as El Greco, historia de un pintor extravagante (San Sebastián: Nerea, 2013).

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