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  • Gallery Chronicle
  • Leann Davis Alspaugh (bio)
The Spanish Journey: El Greco in the National Gallery of Art( November 2, 2014–February 16, 2015) and
Washington-Area Collections—A 400th Anniversary Celebration(National Gallery of Art through February 16, 2015).

El Greco (1541–1614) knew the value of his work and was not afraid to go to court to prove his point. In 1606, he was embroiled in a court battle disputing the low valuation of his work for the chapel at the Hospital of Charity in Illescas, Spain. True, he had missed the deadline for completion by several months and made some unapproved design changes. In addition, he inserted several recognizable faces dressed in contemporary attire at the edges of the central painting of Mary as the Virgin of Charity. While this practice was not all that unusual, the hospital’s brotherhood rightly pointed out that including leading citizens’ portraits drew attention away from what was supposed to be an image honoring the Virgin.

El Greco, however, wished to make an additional point to the court. He lobbied, successfully as it turned out, to avoid paying taxes on his fees, arguing for painting as a liberal art. For the first time in Spain, painting was officially recognized as an art form on a higher plane than the mechanical [End Page 438]or technical arts. The architect Leon Battista Alberti and the painter Masaccio, among others, had already written of art and individuality in the fifteenth century, but that had been in the very heart of Renaissance Italy. While Toledo, where El Greco had been established since 1577, was a social and political center, it was also dominated by the conservative forces of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. By importing this novel view of art to Spain, El Greco spread the idea of painting’s increasingly humanistic role; when he brought this idea to the attention of the court, he established a legal basis for the recognition of originality and artistic creativity. In one stroke, so to speak, El Greco demonstrated that art might represent a patron’s ideas as well as those of the artist. (It also meant, of course, that the artist would be responsible for these ideas.)

El Greco’s sense of self worth was not inconsiderable—after all, this was the same man who had approached Pope Pius V in Rome with an offer to paint over Michelangelo’s highly controversial Last Judgment. (The story goes that El Greco ended up fleeing Rome for Toledo when his Roman peers learned of his hubris.) But El Greco’s attempt to establish painting as part of the artes liberales, or arts worthy of free people, contributed to a new understanding of the worth of the individual in the creative process. As we come off of a year of exhibitions marking the 400th anniversary of El Greco’s death, we are reminded not only of his singular influence on modern art, but also his legacy as an artist convinced of the moral certainty of his own creativity.

El Greco in the National Gallery and Washington Area Collections: A 400th Anniversary Celebrationcollects eleven El Greco works in a single gallery. It is a rare privilege to be able to see works from almost every period of the artist’s life, including such masterpieces as Laocoönand Saint Martin and the Beggar. In the case of the latter, the exhibition also includes a smaller copy made in El Greco’s workshop, offering an instructive opportunity for comparison.

Christ Cleansing the Temple(National Gallery, probably before 1570) is distinctly Venetian in palette and composition and shows the influence of Titian under whom El Greco studied in Venice. El Greco is accomplished but uneven in this ambitious scene, taken from Mark 11:15–17, juggling a densely packed frieze of figures with a complex architectural background and a welter of Christian symbols presented as genre details. El Greco may have chosen this theme because it was uncommon—but still sanctioned by the Council of Trent as a suitable representation of the purification of the church. A multitude of focal points tempts the eye, but the genre details, a trick El Greco picked up...


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pp. 438-442
Launched on MUSE
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