Changes of fashion may be arbitrary, but changes of taste are not. The latter are always to be traced to some more or less conscious need on the part of the community. What we call the vogue or popularity of an artist whether his medium be literature, music, or the fine arts, is the product of something sound or shallow, trivial or serious, in the hearts and minds of the people for which he has found an expression. The mood of the people changes and that artists vogue suffers an eclipse; only, however, to shine forth again when a later generation rediscovers the same mood. It is in this way and for this reason that the vogue of certain artists of the past becomes renewed.
Thus, the late century witnessed a revival of inter- est in Rembrandt, Velasquez, Hals, Goya and still more recently in El Greco. This artist of the Spanish School, Domenico Theotocopuli, was born in Crete; whence the nickname of El Greco, “The Greek.” The date of his birth is unknown, but, it is conjectured, was about 15-18. He was, therefore, a contemporary of Titian and Tintoretto. He is known to have spent some years in Venice, and to have been a pupil of Titian, while it is also evident that Tintoretto influenced him. A letter is still extant recommending El Greco to a Cardinal in Rome as a young man of great promise, who had already painted a por- trait that “causes wonderment to all the painters in Rome.” The next record concerning the artist shows that in 1577 lie was living in Toledo and had painted an altar-piece for the Church of San Domingo el Antigua.
This picture is now owned by the Chicago Art Institute. Such other documents as exist deal mainly with contracts for commissions and occasional disputes over the amounts of payments; while one records the artist’s death. “On 7th April, 1614, died Domenico Greco. He left no will. He received the Sacraments, was buried in Santo Domingo el Antigua; and gave candles.” Spain has been notoriously careless about the records of her famous men, which partly accounts for the dearth of information regarding El Greco. The latter, however, seems to have been a man of great reserve; wrapped up in his work and in the society of a few chosen friends. As in the case of most great artists, the record of his life is really the record of his art.
How did El Greco satisfy the con- scious need of his own time? When we have answered this, we shall be in a position to understand why he has again become a vogue in our own day. Briefly, then, in the last quarter of the sixteenth century and the first of the seventeenth—the period of El Greco’s greatness—Spain was the foremost cham- pion of Catholicism. For nearly a thousand years her sovereigns had borne the proud title of “Catholic Kings’’; and for nearly eight hundred her people had held aloft the banner of the Faith against the Infidel Moor, until the latter had been finally driven from the land. Chivalry and Catholicism were the breath of life in the stern, haughty hidalgos, “sons of somebody”; and, when the Faith everywhere else was threatened by the inroads of the Reformation, they became the leaders of the Counter-Reformation. To the weapons of reason they held up the shield of F’aith, and made up for the falling away of other nations by their own burning devotion to the Church.
Their chivalric fervor glowed with an intense flame of religious mysticism; and the white core of this spiritual volcano was Toledo, whose Cathedral was known throughout Christendom as “Toledo the Rich.” Such, in a few words, was the spiritual environment of El Greco. Being a man of intense dcvoutness and exalted imagination, he became the artist of this movement; interpreting the Toledans to themselves and giving expression to their spiritual exaltation. His earlier pictures, such as the one now in Chicago, still show much of the influence of Titian. But, as the influence of Toledo penetrated his mind and soul he gradually found a means of expressing what he felt, until he formed a style peculiarly his own. Though it was appreciated by the finer minds of his own time, both ecclesiastical and lay, it puzzled many people, including the King, Philip II. As they could not understand it, they assumed that the fault was the artist’s and dubbed him crazy; which, by the way, is the fate of most great imaginative minds.
To grasp the meaning of El Greco’s style it must be noted, in the first place, that it was based on what was peculiarly the genius of all Spanish painting: natu- ralism. But while the other painters of Spain were satisfied, either, like Velasquez, to bring the naturalistic represen- tation to the highest point of truth of appearance; or, as in the case of Mu- rillo, adopted the naturalistic motive to an expression of the sentiment of religion, El Greco interpreted the natural in relation to its spiritual environment. He was, in fact, a realist; in the sense that quite recently we are learning to use the word. He painted not only the fact, but the soul of the fact; made visi- ble to the eye its spiritual environment. Turn, for example, to “The Funeral of Count Ozgaz,” El Greco’s masterpiece, which hangs in the church of Santo Tome, Toledo.
Where will you find a group more grave and dignified? But the artist did not limit himself to naturalism. El Greco has intentionally exag- gerated the length and leanness of the figure of Christ for the purpose of enforcing the spiritual significance. For the same reason he has made the clouds like draperies. In this part of his picture he is using form, but as a symbol of spiritual expression. He makes the spiritual fact visible to the eye through the medium of the forms. The result is a great realistic picture based upon naturalism out of which grows the spiri- tual significance. This, in a word, is the secret of all El Greco’s characteristic work.
He used form, color, composition, and lighting, all as symbols „’f expres- sion. The great end and aim of his art was expression. This brings us to the influence of El Greco in the present day. It corresponds with a growing need on the part of the community. The late century was occupied with material and scientific research and progress, at considerable ex- pense of spiritual ideas and ideals. In fact, the old spiritual values had been so jarred that they no longer served their purpose. By degrees, however, the old perennial truth, that man cannot live by bread alone, began to reassert itself.
Men have begun to turn their gaze in- ward and outward, seeking some new reconciliation of the facts of matter and the facts of spirit. Art is slowly following suit. After a period, given over to representing the things of sight, either purely objectively or colored by the temperament and mood of the artist, a reaction has set in. Pro- gressive painters have begun to realize that the greater portion of the art of the last fifty or sixty years has been in point of view essentially photographic; that in its naturalistic or impressionistic motive painting has simply been a more or less successful rival of the camera. In seeking to discover a field more exclusively its own, they have begun to realize that there is something higher than representation, namely, expression.
The painter is forced to rely on representation as the foundation of his art; but he says, in effect, I will not paint a man for the sake of proving how nearly I can give you an illusion of the original, but for the sake of the amount of expression I can make the form inter- pret. It is not a new idea, but an old one revived; and the source of its present inspiration is the experience we have gained of Oriental art. We have discovered that the secret of the latter was a larger degree of abstraction. The Eastern artist was not so intent on making things look like things; but, while preserving sufficient suggestion of naturalness in the forms, treated them rather as symbols of expression.
It was when this more abstract use of form and this subordination of representation to expression began to occupy the artists of the present day that the vogue of El Greco began. He was recognized as a great master at once of naturalistic representation and of spiritual expres- sion ; and in the union of the two, a great Realist. One of the first modern artists to be seriously influenced by the Spaniard was the Frenchman, Paul Cézanne, who died in 1905. His influence in France is operating with numbers of young artists, who are thinking and working along the lines that we have been discussing. Although they have their goal pretty clearly in view, they are groping for the road to reach it. For Cézanne was a John the Baptist, preaching the way rather than definitely plotting it out. But an account of his work and genius must be reserved for another occasion.