Art history is full of painters who insisted on coloring outside the lines: Albert Pinkham Ryder, Salvador Dalí, and Chicago’s own Ivan Albright. These artists all had a firm grasp on technique and an understanding of their predecessors. They didn’t stray entirely from artistic convention. But they didn’t always stick to the tried and true, either. One might say the same about El Greco, the Spanish master whose work is being celebrated at the Art Institute with “El Greco: Ambition and Defiance,” beginning March 7.
Born in Crete in 1541, El Greco spent time in the studio of Titian in Venice and tried his luck in Rome (where he said nasty things about Michelangelo) before establishing a career in Spain, first in Madrid and later in Toledo, executing work for churches and monasteries. One of his greatest achievements was “Assumption of the Virgin” (1577), which entered the collection of the Art Institute in 1906. While this altarpiece remained true to the standard narrative requirements of ecclesiastical painting, the palette and the modeling of the figures presaged the vivacious fluidity and eye-catching color of his later works. The elongated figures and sense of space that followed had roots in the work of 16th-century Italian painters, but the full refinement of El Greco’s visual logic seems something all his own. His almost freewheeling sense of space suggest the fantasies of Chagall, and his landscapes appear as modern as anything by van Gogh.
In fact, El Greco has long been admired as a man ahead of his time. That seems to have been true for Chicago collector Joseph Winterbotham, suggests Art Institute curator Rebecca Long. “[We’re] lucky to have several other works by the artist, including ‘The Feast in the House of Simon’ that was originally part of the Winterbotham Collection, indicating that for the collector, El Greco was a parallel to modern painters, as it was the only old master painting in his collection.”
Looking at these canvases, one wonders about the man behind them. “El Greco was a striver,” says Long. “He could have settled for a career as an icon painter on Crete, but that seems to not have been enough. He lived beyond his means, renting an increasingly large apartment in a palace in Toledo, demanded large sums for his commissions and then sued when his patrons disagreed with what his work was worth.” As the artist said himself, “I suffer for my art and despise the witless moneyed scoundrels who praise it.”
“El Greco: Ambition and Defiance” runs March 7-June 21. Tickets $7, in addition to regular museum admission. The Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan; artic.edu
Artwork at top: El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos). “The Assumption of the Virgin,” 1577–79. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Nancy Atwood Sprague in memory of Albert Arnold Sprague.