Born in Crete, El Greco (1541-1614) was trained as a Byzantine icon painter before moving to Venice. There he worked in Titian's shop and studied famous paintings of the Renaissance, especially those by Veronese and Tintoretto.
The dramatic lighting typical of Tintoretto and the bold colors of Titian were lasting influences from this time.
Domenikos Theotokopoulos. Portrait of an Old Man, 1595-60. Oil on canvas, 20 3/4" by 18 3/8". Metropolitan Museum of Art. Now considered a self-portrait.
After moving in 1570 to Rome, El Greco secured lodging in the palace of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, one of the city's most influential art patrons. Despite that prestigious connection, though, El Greco failed to receive even a single commission for an altarpiece during his six year tenure.
It seems it is ill-advised to assert that Michelangelo wasn't a skilled painter -- or to offer one's services in improving "The Last Judgement."
Unfailingly confident, El Greco next tried Madrid, where his bid for patronage from Phillip II was turned down.
Next up was Toledo. This ancient city was the capital of the Spanish empire until 1561, and remained its artistic, religious and intellectual center throughout the 16th century. Toledo is memorialized in one of the most celebrated El Greco paintings, View of Toledo (most art history pros consider Burial of Count Orgaz to be his most famous painting).
Domenikos Theotokopoulos. View of Toledo, 1598-99. Oil on canvas, 47 3/4" by 42 3/4". Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In View of Toledo, El Greco takes extensive topographical liberties with the foreground meadow and the placement of the Tagus River and Alcantara bridge. But he was not striving for precise representation. Instead, this swirling canvas of color captures El Greco's emotional response to his adopted homeland. The meadow is eerily illuminated; there are microscopic washerwomen in the Tagus and walkers on the riverbanks - all of whom are microscopic dots - beneath a threatening sky.
Keith Christiansen, Department of European Paintings at the Met, astutely reminds us that El Greco was a contemporary of Caravaggio and Annibale Carracci (the three died in 1614, 1610 and 1609, respectively). Christiansen notes,
...in important respects El Greco's art belonged to the past, not the future: to the world of Mannerism, with its emphasis on the artist's imagination rather than the reproduction of nature... No other great Western artist moved mentally - as El Greco did - from the flat symbolic world of Byzantine icons to the world-embracing, humanistic vision of Renaissance paintings, and then on to a predominatly conceptual kind of art.
How ironic that El Greco,with one eye to the past, would become a forerunner of modern art.