Paris exhibition casts El Greco under new light

Paris exhibition casts El Greco under new light
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The first major exhibition in France for the renowned Greek artist, Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541-1614), better known as El Greco, opened yesterday at the Grand Palais. A total of seventy-six works are on display, ranging from his early Greek iconography to his late career portraits made when he was Toledo, Spain.

El Greco, while mostly known for his religious themes, was a prolific portraitist, known for capturing the character and personality of his subjects intuitively. He was never overly popular in France, where only ten of his works reside in national collections.

With such limited local availability and the Museo del Prado‘s decision to suspend all loans, curators sought works from the US, where El Greco was extremely popular in the beginning of the 20th century, seen as a precursor to Picasso and Dalí. Museo del Prado owns 42 of El Greco’s works, mainly from his time in Spain, and is currently focused on touring them around Spain in celebration of its 200th anniversary.

Spanish painting curator at the Musée du Louvre, Charlotte Chastel-Rousseau, along with her predecessor, Guillaume Kientz, are working with the Art Institute of Chicago, where the exhibition is heading to next, to bring some major El Greco works to France. The most prominent is arguably The Assumption of the Virgin (1577-79), which is newly restored and measures over 4m in height. It has never been seen in Europe since 1904 when it was acquired by Henry Osborne Havemeyer and his wife Louisine from the Parisian gallery Durand-Ruel.

Another El Greco masterpiece arrived from across the Atlantic: Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara (1600), also from the Havemeyer collection, where it resides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The work is largely considered one his best works, and what credits El Greco with being the “painter of the soul”. Also making an appearance from the US, Saint Martin and the Beggar (1597-99) was loaned from the National Gallery in Washington, DC.

Apart from his iconic portraits, the exhibition features some of his rare surviving drawings and a painted sculpture: the naked Risen Christ (1595-98) which was commissioned for Hospital de Tavera in Toledo, Spain. Overall, given the breadth of work exhibited, it becomes clear that the show aims to distance itself from the traditionally famous attributes of El Greco like his early work pioneering Cubism and Expressionism, and instead show his works in the context of his time. Notes on his copy of Giorgio Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, which was lent by the National Library in Madrid, perfectly show that. “He was a learned artist, a real Renaissance man, and if we can help to shift the frame a bit, that would be great,” Chastel-Rousseau says.

Greco, Grand Palais, Paris, 16 October- 10 February 2020