By Nathan Mason

Top: Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple, about 1570. El Greco. Minneapolis Institute of Art

Above: Pieta, about 1578-85. El Greco. Wikimedia Commons

Below: The Vision of St. John, about 1609-14. El Greco. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bottom: The Penitent Magdalene, about 1577. El Greco. Worcester Art Museum

The Art Institute of Chicago’s current exhibition El Greco: Ambition and Defiance is engaging on many levels and in easily digestible bites. He often painted strangely attenuated figures and oddly twisted groups floating in glowing atmospheres, but the portraiture in this exhibit reveals his clear mastery of representational painting. Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple is an excellent early example of both styles in one painting. The naturally rendered portraits of donors in the lower right corner are included as a business necessity but occupy their own space unrelated to the true action and dynamism of the painting seen in the lively figure grouping to the left.

One of the delights of looking at El Greco’s work is examining his virtuosic brush work and command of sinuous line. By bringing together multiple versions of the same image it enables the comparison of minor variations between versions, allowing speculation of if the master or an assistant worked on a particular section. The examples of Mary Magdalene, St. Francis, St. Martin and the Beggar, and the Annunciation offer much to see and analyze. This also helps to illustrate well what it meant to be a successful artist with a studio of assistants at that time (and now): one had to have popular product available for purchase. While we are generally aware that printmakers issue multiple impressions of an image we don’t typically think of painters as working in that manner. Here one can see that when El Greco devised a successful composition of a particular devotional image, he would make that design available in whatever size a patron could afford or have room to use.

The business side of art is frequently ignored in exhibition materials. Either it is thought to be a distraction from the artwork or as too prosaic to belong in the museum. However, art is not generated in a vacuum and the economics of its manufacture are inextricable from its creation and appearance. The inclusion of donor portraits in altarpieces is just one example – surely the donors were not present at the event being depicted. There is a large timeline on the gallery wall which presents a chronology of El Greco’s life. It also clearly shows how contract negotiations and pricing disputes impacted his life and work.

The Counter-Reformation influence on El Greco’s work and its contribution to his unique ethereal drift from naturalism, I think, cannot be underestimated. The great theological war raging in Europe led to a market in Catholic Europe for artworks which emphasized a sense of the sacred and spiritual, a shift from the goals of the rational humanism of the Renaissance. El Greco’s first training as a Byzantine icon painter rooted him in a tradition which held that the artwork was a window to a spiritual world. Naturalism was not a necessity or goal. The expansion of his training to master the art and intellectual direction of the High Renaissance brought naturalism into his portfolio. Addressing the market of his conservative and religious patrons who sought to have their Counter-Reformation faith valorized in the artwork in the churches and homes gave El Greco the support to develop a type of spiritual realism which satisfied the demand for good painting, as then perceived, with the communication of an otherworldly quality that appealed to the religious sensibility of the audience.

On a final note, this exhibition supports one of the great pleasures of museum going – the hunt for visual quotations and who did it first. Does The Vision of Saint John look jarringly modern? Picasso quoted it in Les Demoisselles d’Avignon. Do you see hints of Michelangelo here and there? You are correct. Was Margaret Keane thinking about Mary Magdalene? We don’t know, but there is no reason to be embarrassed if thoughts of those mid-century “big eye” paintings cross your mind. She was a good painter, and populism is not a sin. Reading El Greco’s biography suggests that while he may have wanted a licensing fee for derivative works, he wouldn’t have been opposed to them. After all, it would mean that more people might want his original artworks.

El Greco: Ambition and Defiance is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago until June 21, 2020

Nathan Mason is an artist, art history nerd and public art administrator in Chicago. He will have an exhibition of sculpture at The Dime Gallery in May. He is also a verger and a thurifer who occasionally indulges in Queen Anne swings, at St. James Cathedral, Chicago.