Works from El Greco’s atelier

By today’s standards when an artist signs a painting, the usual understanding is that it has been made entirely by him. If proven otherwise, the work is judged a fake and is usually accorded a lesser value, both artistic and financial. However, this was not always the case. During the Renaissance and the periods that immediately followed it, the creation of art was often accepted as a collaborative effort and a painting the outcome of the joint work of different artists working under the supervision of a master artist. Most of the great artists of the time – Raphael and Titian are typical examples – did not work alone but established their own workshops in which artists worked together to meet the demand of large commissions. Workshops were also the training ground for apprentices new to the trade. El Greco (1541-1614) – or Domenikos Theotocopoulos, which is how he signed his works (in Greek, often followed by «Kres,» which means Cretan) – is known to have established one of the most flourishing workshops in Spain in the last decade of the 16th century. «El Greco and his Workshop,» an unusual and challenging exhibition that opened recently at the Museum of Cycladic Art, shows the output of Greco’s workshop in Toledo. The exhibition shows the variations in style that developed in El Greco’s workshop but also in his own artistic output, makes comparisons between works attributed to El Greco and those of his workshop, and also follows the work of some of El Greco’s pupils after they left his workshop. The exhibition also suggests the challenges of attribution faced by specialists. It includes 56 works (on loan from some of the most important museums and collections worldwide), eight of which are signed by El Greco himself. The exhibition is curated by Carmen Garrido and Jose Alvarez Lopera (both from the Prado museum) and Professor Nicos Hadjinicolaou. A voluminous catalog in Greek and Spanish includes scholarly essays by the curators and other experts. El Greco was around 35 years old and already a famous painter when he established his workshop. Raised in Crete, he left for Venice in his late 20s and studied next to Titian. Before leaving for Toledo, he spent several years in Rome where he worked for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese and also painted many portraits. During his stay in Venice and Rome, it is most probable that El Greco did not maintain a workshop, although there is evidence to suggest that he had pupils. A proliferation of commissions in Toledo may be one of the reasons behind his workshop in Spain. As the Athens exhibition shows, two of El Greco’s most important pupils and collaborators were his son, Jorge Manuel Theotocopuli, and Luis Tristan, an artist who after his three-year apprenticeship with El Greco moved from mannerism to a more naturalistic style. Paintings such as «St Jerome in his Cell» or «Portrait of a Nobleman,» both included in the Athens exhibition, are fine examples of Tristan’s naturalistic style that became typical of Spanish 17th century art. A comparison between Tristan’s «St Francis of Assisi in Penitence» and a painting on the same theme by Theotocopoulos is indicative of the different styles: El Greco’s composition evokes a spirituality and has a sense of spareness that is lacking in the more baroque, earthly composition of his pupil. Examples of the work of Jorge Manuel Theotocopuli (an artist who never reached his father’s talent and shared nothing of El Greco’s intellect) include «Espolio,» a copy of the original painting that El Greco made for the Toledo Cathedral – where it remains today. The Athens exhibition showcases three versions of the painting: One is considered a poor copy and is signed by Jorge Manuel and the other, although signed by El Greco, is believed to have been painted by his son. The exhibition demonstrates that attribution is an ongoing, challenging task for scholars, an area where consensus is not always reached and reappraisals are often made. Because the most popular compositions were repeated many times, in slightly different variations painted either by the same artist or in collaboration with others, it is very difficult to evaluate artistically the details that differentiate one version from another or to define which parts of the painting were painted by whom. «The Adoration of the Shepherds,» from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is listed as painted by El Greco; however, in the catalog Jose Alvarez Lopera makes comparisons between the original composition painted by El Greco (it is now in the Prado) and argues that the Metropolitan Museum painting was made by El Greco’s workshop and not by the master himself. However, a copy was not always subordinate to an original painting. «St Ildefonso Archbishop of Toledo,» painted around 1608-1614, a large painting by El Greco, is juxtaposed with two variations: One is attributed to his workshop and dated from the same period as the original and a subsequent more naturalistic copy is attributed to an unknown artist from the mid-17th century. Both copies are fine paintings; the texture and colors of the saint’s robe in the later version is impressive. Making replicas of a painting to meet demand was an accepted practice. A replica is one thing, a fake quite another. «The Adoration of the Shepherds,» from the Prado Museum, is an example of the latter. The work was painted in the second half of the 20th century on a 17th century canvas and was exposed as a fake after its acquisition by the Prado in 1985. The Athens exhibition helps the viewer look critically at art and encourages him to doubt authenticity and artistic excellence. Even in the those cases in which El Greco’s authorship is not contested, one should keep in mind that not all the variations that the artist made of the same theme are of equal artistic standing. The making of art is a vivid process marked by moments of great or lesser inspiration. At the time of El Greco, it was also a process conducted among different painters working together under the guidance of a great master. «El Greco and his Workshop» at the Museum of Cycladic Art (4 Neophytou Douka, 210.722.8321) through January 5, 2008.