The 400th anniversary of El Greco’s death this year put the National Gallery of Art in an unusual bind. As keepers of one of the largest collections of the painter’s work outside of Spain, curators made a priority of loaning four of their prized pieces to exhibits abroad. That complicated efforts to mount their own commemoration of an artist whose startlingly modernist style, with its vivid colors and elongated figures, has spawned centuries of praise and criticism.
The solution was to cull all the available El Grecos in the Washington-Baltimore area into a grouping of 11 paintings on display through Feb. 16 in the gallery’s West Building. With works from the Walters Art Museum, the Phillips Collection and Dumbarton Oaks hanging next to the gallery’s own pieces, the exhibit is a testament to Gilded Age collectors’ appetites for El Greco’s religious and mythological subjects, which has left about 50 of his paintings in U.S. institutions.
The appeal lay in the fact that “El Greco’s art was never simple,” said David Alan Brown, the National Gallery’s curator of Italian and Spanish painting. Blending the spiritual fervor of the counter-Reformation with pictorially complicated scenes, El Greco gained favor not only with wealthy gallery-goers, but also artists such as Edgar Degas, who owned the painting of Saint Ildefonso, the archbishop of Toledo, in the exhibit.
Born Domenikos Theotokopoulos on the Greek island of Crete around 1541, El Greco moved from Venice to Rome to the Spanish court at El Escorial, incorporating artistic influences at each stop. Unable to compete with Titian and the memory of Michelangelo and Raphael, he only achieved success in Spain, blending the emerging mannerist idiom with echoes of the Byzantine icons he painted early in his career. No slouch as an entrepreneur, he set up a busy workshop that produced replicas of his most popular works. There are at least a half dozen versions of “Saint Martin and the Beggar,” featured in the National Gallery show, which portrays a young nobleman sharing his cloak with a shivering, unnaturally gaunt beggar.
That painting and one of a Madonna and Child were commissioned as altarpieces for the Chapel of Saint Joseph in Toledo, Spain. Purchased by Philadelphia financier Peter A. B. Widener, they hung in his residence until 1942, when his son Joseph Widener donated them to the gallery. Both paintings recently underwent restoration to remove varnish, which better reveals El Greco’s brush strokes and the original colors.
The Catholic Church’s attempts to purify itself after the Protestant Reformation is a constant theme in El Greco’s work, prominently featured in “Christ Cleansing the Temple,” which depicts an angry Jesus throwing moneychangers out of the temple in Jerusalem. The contorted figures dodging the blows convey their agitated state and disrespect, while the brushwork and colors show strong influences of the Venetian school.
Perhaps the most striking painting in the show is “Laocoön,” adapted from the story of the Trojan horse in Virgil’s “Aeneid.” A priest who warned his countrymen not to accept the gift from the Greeks is descended upon by serpents sent by angry gods, who also attack his sons. The pallid flesh tones, twisting lines and gloomy view of Toledo in the background suggest nothing short of doom and have been interpreted by some as a commentary on the Inquisition or Christian martyrdom.
The gallery’s exhibit includes a 30-minute film, “El Greco: An Artist’s Odyssey,” narrated by actor Adrien Brody. Related activities include a Dec. 14 concert of Spanish Renaissance music by guitarist Francisco Bernier at 6:30 p.m.
“El Greco in the National Gallery of Art and Washington-Area Collections: A 400th Anniversary Celebration” runs through Feb. 16 in the National Gallery of Art, West Building Main Floor. Hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. The gallery is closed on Dec. 25 and Jan. 1.