West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
El Greco and Toledo
Report of the lecture given by Siān Walters
on November 26th
Our speaker was Siān Walters who is a lecturer for the
National Gallery, NADFAS, the University of Surrey and a number of
other art societies and colleges. After graduating from Cambridge
University, she spent four years in Italy and France where she worked
for the Peggy Guggenheim Museum and the eminent scholar H C Robbins
Landon. She now spends much of her time lecturing abroad,
particularly in Italy and Spain.
|View of Toledo (c. 1596–1600, oil
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
Siān started her talk by showing us a painting by El
Greco entitled View of Toledo,
painted around 1596
to 1600. She pointed out that this painting looks much more
modern that the date would indicate. Toledo was a beautiful small
city with an ecclesiastical heart providing great scope for religious
Kenneth Clark, the well-known art historian, described this View of Toledo as the first true
|The Dormition of the Virgin
1567, tempera and gold on panel,
Holy Cathedral of the Dormition of the
Siān went on to talk about the distortions of form
shown by El Greco in
the majority of his paintings. There is a sense of brooding in
the colours as seen in The Dormition
Some commentators at the time described him as an eccentric master or
mad as a hatter.
A possible reason given for the distortions is that El Greco was going
blind, but there is no proof of this theory.
He rejected painting in three dimensions, unlike the Mona Lisa, but was still
commercially successful during his lifetime.
El Greco moved from his birth place of Crete to
Venice, which was the
centre of art patronage at the time, in 1567. In Venice he
studied under Titian and was also influenced by Tintoretto, who was the
first to stretch out and distort his figures.
|St Peter in Penitence
on canvas, Bowes Museum)
He then moved to Toledo where his emphasis changed and
he was massively
influenced by the writings of Theresa of Avila.
It was here that he painted St Peter
in Penitence and Mary
Magdalen in Penitence in the 1580s. From this time onwards
a skull frequently appeared in El Greco’s paintings as a spiritual aid
to the meditation on death.
During this period he was also influenced by Hieronymus Bosch and
Raphael and was successful in selling many of his paintings, including
a number to his group of women supporters.
El Greco died in Toledo in 1614, having produced most of his
best-renowned paintings here. El Greco’s work is said to be the
precursor to Expressionism and Cubism and has been an influence on many
twentieth century artists, including Picasso.
Related Links (open in new windows):
2014 - Toledo marks the fourth centenary of his death
History in Focus - Siān Walters' company website
Our guest lecturer Siān Walters transported us from wintry Cranleigh
to the heat and colour of sixteenth century Spain