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National Gallery of Art celebrates El Greco

By AMANDA AUBLE | October 31, 2014

 

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. presented an exclusive preview of its 11-piece collection commemorating the 400th anniversary of painter El Greco’s 1614 death on Tuesday morning, Oct. 28.

Apart from already having the largest El Greco collection in the U.S. with seven original paintings, the Gallery added four more pieces to this special exhibition from Dumbarton Oaks, the Phillips Collection and the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

After entering the Gallery’s West building, members of the press were welcomed with breakfast and allowed to mingle with museum staff. Seats were arranged around a classical style fountain and a backdrop of towering doric columns as key players in the exhibition’s fruition gave opening remarks.

Director of the National Gallery of Art Earl A. Powell III thanked some of the museum’s early benefactors and spoke briefly about the value of El Greco’s work.

“This exhibition showcases the artist’s ground-breaking style of painting that fused elements of Byzantine and Renaissance art with the heightened spirituality of the Counter-Reformation,” Powell said. “El Greco’s expressive style fascinated early 20th-century American collectors who competed to acquire his paintings.”

Born Doménikos Theotokopóulos on the Greek Island of Crete, El Greco started his artistic career painting Byzantine icons. After establishing a foundation in art, he traveled to Rome in 1570 where he was exposed to artistic movements like Mannerism and the Venetian Renaissance.

In 1576, El Greco relocated to Toledo, Spain where he spent the rest of his life completing commissions for Spanish aristocrats and churches. However, during his career and after his death in 1614, El Greco’s work fell into obscurity.

Contemporaries found that El Greco’s elongated, colorful and dramatic depictions did not compare with Michelangelo and Titan’s more classical styles. However, early 19th-century French artists and connoisseurs began to take note of it after the Napoleonic occupation of Spain.

Powell then introduced a special guest for the morning, Ambassador of Spain to the United States Ramón Gil-Casares. Both Madrid and Toledo held their own major collections honoring El Greco earlier this spring.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, we are very excited to be here for the first showing of this exhibition. I would like to express my gratitude to the National Gallery of Art for organizing this wonderful exhibit.... This, what you’re going to see throughout this collection of El Greco, are qualities of Spain, his country of culture.” Gil- Casares said. “[The collections] demonstrate El Greco’s importance in the United States.”

Courtesy of Amanda Auble

 

David Alan Brown, the curator of Italian and Spanish paintings at the National Gallery of Art, spoke after the Ambassador. Brown provided a more in-depth description of El Greco’s impact and the collection’s truly notable pieces.

“This raises the question about the reception of Greco’s works,” Brown said. “He wasn’t a great success with people we might have expected to admire his work, and in Venice he had to compete with Titan... In Rome, there was the memory of Michelangelo who worked for the Farnese Family.”

Brown explained the Gallery’s decision to arrange the collection according to themes and issues. Instead of their previous 1982 exhibit that took a retrospective look at his career, El Greco’s pieces are now grouped based on specific concepts like achievement, religious themes, replica creations and modern art influences.

“One result of this change from the regular installing is that we brought together two wonderful paintings from the Chapel of San Jose in Toledo,” Brown added. “These were on the side walls of the chapel and we brought them together in the show.”

Notably, this collection contains El Greco’s only pagan painting, Laocoön (c. 1610/1614). Although known for his religious fervor and support of the Counter Reformation, El Greco took the mythological story of Laocoön and his sons, which originates from Virgil’s “Aeneid” and injected themes of Christian martyrdom.

The Gallery also presents a 30 minute continuous video on El Greco’s history that compliments the collection. The film is titled “El Greco: An Artist’s Odyssey” and is narrated by Academy Award winning actor Adrien Brody.

The film and the exhibit highlights El Greco’s unique, passionate style that is now seen to have inspired Cubism and Expressionism. Other important pieces in the Gallery include The Visitation (c. 1610/1614), Christ Cleansing the Temple (before 1570) and Saint Ildefonso (c. 1603/1614), which was previously owned by Degas.

The Gallery will officially open this celebratory exhibition to the public on Nov. 2 and will maintain the masterpieces through Feb. 16, 2015.


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