In the lead-up to our new exhibition ‘El Greco to Goya: Spanish Masterpieces from The Bowes Museum’, we wanted to share five interesting things you need to know about Spanish Art and history of the time. Learn even more when our exhibition opens on the 27 September 2017! #ElGrecotoGoya
1. El Greco’s vast workshop – the Henry Ford of Toledo
Many great master painters of the 16th Century had huge workshops of studio assistants and pupils churning out paintings for them, with El Greco as no exception! His workshop turned out so many paintings, that a modern historian, Harold Wethey, called him the ‘Henry Ford of Toledo’. In the case of El Greco, a signature does not necessarily mean that the painting is wholly or even partly done by the master himself, and this has naturally caused some controversy for art historians and museums – but also makes the attribution of a true original all the more special!
2. The ‘Golden Age’… or not so ‘Golden’?
Often referred to as the ‘Golden Age’, the 16th and 17th Centuries in Spain was a time for blossoming arts, theatre, music, and literature, as well as a time when Spain’s mighty empire included the Spanish peninsula, Austria, parts of Germany and Italy, Belgium, Holland, the Americas, the Philippines, and parts of northern Africa. However, it was also a period of war and religious intolerance, suggesting it was not so ‘Golden’ for many including the soldiers, peasants and slaves; the indigenous peoples who were forced into labour upon the colonisation of the New World; and the Muslims, Jews and Protestants who were forced to convert to Catholicism upon fear of death.
3. Goya – the suffering artist.
In the later part of Goya’s life, an extended period of illness left the artist completely deaf, and it is speculated that Goya may have been undergoing a nervous breakdown, suffering from hallucinations, deliriums and severe weight loss. Isolated by his deafness, he became more and more occupied with the critical observations of mankind, as well as his own imagination and fantasy. This is reflected in the later works of his career, which included paintings of lunatic asylums, prisons, and scenes that depicted the effects of the war on daily life.
4. Religion at the heart of the art.
Spain is a country with a tumultuous history of religious struggle, and for centuries it was torn between Christian and Muslim rule. The art of the 16th Century reflects the resurged dominance of the Catholic religion at that time, and the subsequent need to show one’s pious devotion and religious intensity during the Counter Reformation. Some of the religious stories being retold in our upcoming exhibition include the Immaculate Conception, the levitation of St Frances, St Peter’s remorse, and the story of Tobias and the archangel.
Image: Jusepe de after Ribera, ‘A Levitation of St Francis’ (detail), © The Bowes Museum
5. Before their time: Influencing Modern Art.
The work of the 16th Century Spanish painters, Velazquez, Murillo and most significantly, El Greco were a huge influence on the development of Modern artists such as Edouard Manet, Cezanne, and Picasso. Even Jackson Pollock had sketchbooks filled with numerous drawings after El Greco, breaking down his figures to simpler forms in order to understand the basic composition and movement within El Greco’s work. It is easy to see how many of these artists, in particular El Greco, could be described as early ‘Modernists’.
El Greco’s ‘The Resurrection’ from Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum was drawn numerous times by Jackson Pollock and can be found in his sketchbooks currently housed in the Met Museum collection here.
Image: El Greco, The Resurrection, c. 1600–5. Oil on canvas, 44 3/4 x 20 3/4″. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University in St. Louis. University purchase, Parsons Fund, 1952.