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Thursday, February 12, 2015

An exhibit to see before you die: 'El Greco' at the National Gallery of Art, leaving Monday

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), Saint Martin and the Beggar, 1597/1599, National Gallery of Art

Dear Art Enthusiast,

If the "El Greco" exhibition now at the National Gallery of Art leaves before you see it, you may lie upon your death bed and regret that you missed the moment, which is set to expire Monday.

Crowds are expected to be large for this last weekend, as they always are at the end of any major presentation, but better to see it and catch a glimpse than not to see it, that is the solution.

It's not a big show, only 11 of El Greco's works are displayed in a single gallery to commemorate the quadricentennial anniversary of his death in 1614, but their intricacies and bewitching parts may wrap you in wonder for many moments. (All one has to say is "elongated," and you know the artist. His characters look like they came from the same family of long faces and bodies.)  
El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), Laocoön, c. 1610/1614, National Gallery of Art. No work by El Greco has inspired more controversy than his one surviving mythological painting. From the story of the Trojan horse in Virgil's Aeneid, El Greco's Laocoön symbolizes a number of topics from the Counter-Reformation, says the National Gallery
That El Greco, called the master of light, lived 400 years ago is startling since his work seems contemporary in style, with distinctive figures and in the revolutionary way he drew in the 16th century.  He has been called a precursor of cubism who broke with contemporaries and their adherence to form and proportion, to focus on light and color, presaging the impressionists by 300 years.  (Do you not see the influence he had on Salvador Dali, not an impressionist, but a native Spaniard?)
El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos),
Saint Jerome, c. 1610/1614, National Gallery of Art.  In this unfinished canvas, El Greco depicts Saint Jerome, kneeling in the wilderness while clutching the bloodied rock that he used to beat his chest in repentance for his love of classical learning.

For El Greco, the National Gallery has supplemented seven of its own El Greco paintings with art from the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and Washington's Phillips Collection and Dumbarton Oaks.  (Four of the National Gallery's El Grecos returned last year from tour in Spain, the host of its own celebration of the life and works of Domenikos Theotokopoulos who lived there half his life.)

"The Greek" as he is known (he signed all his works with his name in Greek characters) was born in 1541 on the isle of Crete, then part of the Republic of Venice. When he was 26, he moved to Venice to hone his skills and stayed there about four years until 1570 when he moved to Rome to train and refine his work. In 1577 he moved to his last home, Toledo, Spain's religious capital, where he painted his best and earned the most.

The National Gallery says he blended diverse influences:  Byzantine, Renaissance, and mannerist which "rejected the logic and naturalism of Renaissance art" to capture "the religious fervor of Counter-Reformation Spain."

What was Counter-Reformation Spain?  I had to look it up, too: a "Catholic Revival" or "resurgence" which responded to the Protestant Reformation (1517-1648), lasting about 100 years (1545-1648) until the end of the Thirty Years' War. Wikipedia says the Catholic church was a major arts patron which desired to restore its approved art to its once-lofty perch and convey teaching through art with a heavy emphasis on the Virgin Mary.  No nudity, graphic images or anything which begetted lust was allowed. El Greco responded in kind to, as one art historian called it, "the death of medieval art." 

One example of his answer to the Counter-Revolution is Christ Cleansing the Temple (probably before 1570, National Gallery of Art) where the church's influences and attempt to purify itself are displayed.  

Also in the exhibition are:

Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata, 1585–1590, Walters Art Museum;

The Holy Family with Saint Anne and the Infant John the Baptist, c. 1595/1600, National Gallery of Art;

The Repentant Saint Peter, 1600–1605 or later, The Phillips Collection;

Saint Ildefonso, c. 1603/1614, National Gallery of Art, once owned by Edgar Degas.  Featured is the seventh-century archbishop of Toledo shown in his study, furnished as it was in El Greco's time.

At the top of this page is Saint Martin and the Beggar. El Greco was commissioned to paint altarpieces for the Chapel of Saint Joseph in Toledo, Spain which included Saint Martin and the Beggar and Madonna and Child with Saint Martina and Saint Agnes (1597/1599, National Gallery of Art).  Peter A. B. Widener purchased them, and they hung in the Widener residence until 1942, when Mr. Widener's son, Joseph, donated them to the National Gallery. Both paintings were recently cleaned to remove yellowed varnish and reveal the original color relationships and vibrancy of El Greco's brushwork. 

El Greco managed the creation of numerous replicas of his compositions, including at least six Saint Martin and the Beggar. The exhibition includes the Gallery's and the artist's original.

In The Visitation (c. 1610/1614, Dumbarton Oaks) the figures are viewed from below because the painting was conceived for the ceiling above the altar in the Church of San Vicente, Toledo. Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss purchased this work in 1936 for the music room of their home, Dumbarton Oaks.

Early benefactors to the National Gallery, Andrew W. Mellon, Chester Dale, Samuel H. Kress, and Joseph Widener, have shaped the Gallery's El Greco collection into one of the largest in the U.S. and for that and many other reasons, the people of the United States and its visitors are grateful for this opportunity to see another outstanding presentation. 

What: El Greco, from Washington-Area Collections  A 400th Anniversary Celebration

When: Now through February 16, 2015 from 10 a.m. - 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. Sunday

Where: Main Floor, West Building, National Gallery of Art, between Third and Seventh streets at Constitution Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. On the Mall.

Admission: No charge

Metro stations: Smithsonian, Federal Triangle, Navy Memorial-Archives, or L'Enfant Plaza

For more information: 202-737-4215

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