For centuries, Spanish Renaissance painter El Greco was a non-entity. No one studied his startling, unconventional work hanging high in a gothic cathedral, obscure convents and Spanish museums.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that modern painters rediscovered the artist, who was born Domenicos Theotocopoulos in Crete and then lived and painted in Toledo, Spain, from 1577 until his death in 1614. They found inspiration in his bold colors and brush strokes.
Now the city of Toledo is marking the 400th anniversary of the death of its most famous resident with a series of exhibitions, conferences and concerts in the walled, medieval city, as well as in Madrid. The centerpiece of the commemorations is the biggest ever gathering of El Greco paintings, in an exhibition in Toledo that runs from March 14 to June 14.
More than 100 canvases — many of them painted in the city centuries ago — will be on display in the Santa Cruz Museum and in other famous Toledo buildings such as the cathedral, drawing an expected 1 million visitors.
“Almost all of these paintings left Toledo at the beginning of the 20th century. We are gathering them all from the El Greco diaspora,” said Gregorio Maranon, president of the El Greco 2014 foundation that has been four years preparing anniversary events.
Bringing the paintings from major world museums and private collections has been an expensive project. Maranon would not say how expensive, but said it has been mostly privately financed as Spain’s government has cut spending on arts in the midst of an acute fiscal crisis.
Trained in the great painting schools of Rome and Venice, El Greco traveled to Spain to seek the patronage of Felipe II at the Spanish court in the palace of El Escorial, in the hills outside of Madrid. The monarch didn’t give him a court position but El Greco settled and found work in nearby Toledo, an ancient Spanish capital and religious center 70 kilometers south of Madrid.
Among the El Greco paintings traveling home to Toledo are “The Adoration of the Name of Jesus,” on loan from the National Gallery of London; “Christ on the Cross Adored by Two Donors,” from the Louvre; and “View of Toledo,” a favorite of writer Ernest Hemingway, who visited it at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Other famous El Grecos have stayed at home in Toledo, such as “The Nobleman with his Hand on his Chest” and “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.” They will hang in their original places in convents and churches.
The biggest masterpiece of the master’s early years in Toledo, “The Disrobing of Christ,” has hung in the chilly sacristy of Toledo’s cathedral since it was put there centuries ago.
The 3-meter-high painting left the cathedral last year to be restored in Madrid’s national museum, the Prado.
For El Greco restorer Rafael Alonso, it was a deeply emotional task.
“This was the crowning moment of my career,” said Alonso, who has restored some 90 El Grecos, about his work to revive the original, bright colors of the masterpiece. “I can’t imagine Christ’s face in any other way except how El Greco painted it in ‘The Disrobing’,” he said.
“The Disrobing of Christ,” commissioned by church officials soon after El Greco arrived in Toledo, shows Jesus in a brilliant red robe, with an elongated neck, and long, slender fingers in a crowd of similarly stretched-out figures that are the painter’s signature.
The informal poses of people in the painting, dramatic colors and loose proportions made it innovative for its day though it also reflected influences from different painting schools.
“He is possibly the most modern of all the great painters of the 16th and 17th centuries,” said Maranon.
El Greco absorbed the teachings of the masters of his era — Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese — but then reinterpreted them and struck out on his own path, leaving their Renaissance perspective behind.
However, the artists who immediately followed him were not such risk-takers and his style remained unique.
“He was a forgotten painter, an ‘outsider’ if you will, who was rediscovered,” said Javier Baron, head of the Prado’s 19th century painters department.
At the start of the 19th century, painters made pilgrimages to the Prado to learn from the masterpieces of court painter Velazquez. But later, El Greco paintings that also hung in Spain’s national museum became a powerful influence on the impressionists, expressionists and the painting schools that followed, from cubist to abstract.
“This occurred with Manet, later with Cezanne, and later with Picasso. The El Greco influence on Picasso is greater than on any other artist, from the beginning to the end of his career,” Baron said.
Works of Picasso and other modern greats will be hung with El Greco paintings to show the huge influence he had on modern painting, in another anniversary exhibition, curated by Baron, at the Prado from June 24 to October 5.
El Greco’s bold style still gives rise to all sorts of wacky questions that art experts rule out, said Leticia Ruiz, head of the Prado’s pre-1700 Spanish painting department. “Did he have stigmatism, or vision problems? Was he crazy? People are still asking that today,” said Ruiz.