Arts: Who Was the Greatest Artist Ever?

There could be much spirited debate about who is the “greatest artist” who ever lived.

There are, of course, the Ancient Greek sculptors who lived and worked from about 480 BC to about 100 BC. Phidias is generally considered #1 but then there is Polyclitus (#1 in Nikitas’ mind) and Praxiteles and Scopas and Calamis and a dozen others. Their oeuvre laid the groundwork for Western art and never has been equaled.

But when I talk about the “greatest artist” I wish to narrow that down to the “greatest painter” for the purpose of this essay.

And although there indeed were painters among the Greeks, their paintings never survived. They were surely frescos in houses long lost to time, or paintings on wooden panels that have not survived the ravages of history.

Of course there were Greek vase painters whose work is preserved, but who are not nearly as well known as the sculptors. Their work is very graphic – just line and blocks of color baked onto vases; it was not what you might have technically called “painting”, with brushes and pigments.

Still nothing like those vase paintings ever has been accomplished since. It is fortuitous for us that they were made on pottery which has not been degraded by time. These vases are unique achievements in the history of art.

There are no widely known artists in the 1st Millennium AD, in what is called the Middle Ages or the Byzantine era when the city-state of Constantinople (today Istanbul, Turkey) and its new Christian faith dominated the Western world.

The art known to us from that era is almost exclusively Christian icon paintings and manuscripts. They generally were made by monks or priests or other religious figures who were not trained as artists and who did not identify themselves by name in their service to the great good of God.

Even today when Orthodox Christian icons are made they are not created in a “worldly” or Renaissance-type style with artistic grace, but in a less refined and intentionally primitive manner in order to pay homage to the pioneers in that genre.

The bodies, faces, arms, legs and fingers are elongated. There is never a ‘glint’ in the eye. The drapery folds are highly stylized, sometimes strangely so, as is everything else in this genre. The perspective is distorted and the rocks look like something out of a sci-fi movie.

By the way, Orthodox icons are always said to be ‘written’ not ‘painted’ in order to distinguish them from worldly art. The term ‘iconographer’ literally means “image writer”.  

Thus let’s move into the 2nd Millennium with the peak of the Renaissance at the very center at 1500 AD. Who was the greatest painter? The Italians are certainly up for an award – Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Parmigianino, Titian.

But in the opinion of the greatest painter surely must have been the one and only Greek who has a worldwide reputation since the last of the Ancient sculptors lived. His name was Domenicos Theotokopoulos and he was born on Crete in 1541. He made his mark living and working in Spain where he died in 1614. He is known to us as El Greco or The Greek in Spanish.

In his time and ever since El Greco has been considered by many to be an oddity. He was called brilliant, insane, crazy, outrageous. Some recognized his genius in his era while many scorned and rejected him. But it is said today that he simply was centuries ahead of his time, a “modernist” working in the 1500s.

Today he is almost universally revered for his forward-looking art with a style and energy that have never been matched. El Greco was the classic timeless individualist.

He even made his mark off the beaten path, not in Florence or Rome or Venice but in Toledo, Spain, a provincial outpost and an important locus to Spanish Catholics. Perhaps this was the best thing. Having no competition in Toledo for his behemoth talent and free from any local stylistic imperatives El Greco was able to dominate and to create totally original art. Eventually he has come to dominate much of the discourse about art of the last 2,500 years with his originality, creativity and eccentricity.

Most of his work still remains in Toledo, in churches where he worked on commission, or in museums or in other institutions. A trip there would be well worth any art aficionado’s time.

El Greco’s father was a merchant and a tax collector. Domenicos was born and raised on Crete which in the 16th century was an international home for Byzantine icon makers of every style (Greek, Russian, Venetian etc.) who created work for sale throughout the Mediterranean world. He was trained in his youth in icon ‘writing’. Religiously he was Greek Orthodox.

Eventually Domenicos decamped to Venice – which controlled Crete at the time – and then finally made his way to Toledo at age 36. His art reached its peak around 1600 and was part of the Mannerist movement. Writes Keith Christiansen of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City:

El Greco rejected naturalism as a vehicle for his art just as he rejected the idea of an art easily accessible to a large public. What he embraced was the world of a self-consciously, erudite style, or maniera (Mannerism). The paradox is that, at a time when the blatant display of artifice inherent in Mannerism was being criticized as an indulgence, and artists in Rome were striving to rid their paintings of anything that might seem mere display, El Greco took just the opposite route. He made elongated, twisting forms, radical foreshortening, and unreal colors the very basis of his art. The difference was that he made these effects deeply expressive and not merely emblems of virtuosity.

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 painting, and then on to a predominantly conceptual kind of art. Those worlds had one thing in common: a respect for Neo-Platonic theory about art embodying a higher realm of the spirit. El Greco's modernism is based on his repudiation of the world of mere appearances in favor of the realm of the intellect and the spirit.

El Greco boldly laid the groundwork for what we today would call Expressionism in that he really “painted” his work. He “expressed” his figures in vibrant, vigorous brushwork and compositions rather than “imitating” nature as was the style in most Renaissance art in very tightly controlled and executed tableaux – often compositionally static – where the very sight of dabbled paint and visible brushwork was submerged into smooth, controlled blocks of color that were scrupulously executed, as in an illustration.

As an example, compare Raphael’s Portrait of Maddalena Strozzi Doni of 1506 (below) to El Greco’s Portrait of a Cardinal of 1600 (second image down). You can clearly see the difference in style. There was no other artist with such a passion for the possibilities of oil paint as El Greco.

And do not confuse El Greco’s Expressionism with ‘modernist’ Expressionism. Because El Greco’s art was imprinted onto a deep understanding and awareness of natural form, particularly the human portrait and human anatomy, while the 20th century variety like German Expressionism relies on lowbrow cartoon-like imagery (Max Beckmann, for example).

Indeed the so-called modernists adopted El Greco’s style but never have bothered to emulate his deep talent in the historical disciplines of art – drawing, form, composition, anatomy, color, line etc.

Even the leaves and flowers that are delightful sidelights in El Greco paintings are beautifully done. Hair also is painted with great aplomb and vitality.

About his skills in drawing, the book El Greco of Toledo, published by Little Brown and Company in 1982 in conjunction with a major exhibit of the artist’s work organized by the Toledo Museum of Art, says:

During his years in Italy El Greco became a consummate draftsman of the human form. His figures are always consequently firmly modeled; their sense of structure is never weakened despite the distortions.

So what are the “distortions”?

Saint Sebastian (1577-78), below, demonstrates yet another facet of El Greco’s work that even a novice can spot – his use of elongated human figures.

Looking at St. Sebastian you could almost forget that the figure is distorted, that it is too tall, that Sebastian appears to be a giant. The whole canvas is a completely new experience in which all preconceived notions of beauty and artistic propriety are blown away. You enter the mind of El Greco. He is in control. The entire composition is so mesmerizing that you accept the figure as is.

To understand El Greco you could compare Sebastian’s oversized form to the Christian Orthodox icon Archangel Michael, written by Nicholas Bobrovsky in 1985. Notice the similar distortions in the two figures.

Was Domenicos simply being faithful to his youthful icon-writing roots?

It is an intriguing possibility to think about.

This is El Greco taking us into a new dimension where “imagination” takes precedence over “imitation” of nature. This laid the groundwork for so-called modern art in which, unfortunately, imagination has taken over completely.

In his time this was a revolutionary step. Because throughout history the imitation or careful description of nature was paramount. Nature always has been the source for real art. Those who mastered nature became the great artists. Then El Greco not only mastered nature but went much further, rejecting the measured, controlled and contrived status of Renaissance art, writing this, talking about the artist Giulio Clovio:

When (Clovio) asked Michelangelo about (the value) of measurements (in art) he told him that… anyone who dealt with measurements was very stupid and wretched.

There are other theories about El Greco’s figural distortion. One says that he had a vision problem that made the world appear taller and longer. Another theory is that El Greco’s figures emanate from what one theorist wrote…

The greatest grace and liveliness that a figure may have is that it seems to move itself; painters call this the furia (soul) of the figure.  And to represent this movement, no form is more suited than the flame of fire. … so that when the figure will have this form it will be most beautiful.

This ‘flame of fire’ is represented in the elongated flame that you see burning on Orthodox Christian candles that represent the light of God, something that the young Domenicos would have seen in his Greek Orthodox church services.

Is this why Orthodox icons have elongated figures in the first place?

It is worth thinking about.

This concept of the elongated figure is part of El Greco’s successful attempt to take his painting into a world of what he called “speculation”, or that painting could be an intellectual achievement worthy of discussion rather than an artisan’s act of picture-making and imitation of nature, a manual act of handiwork that is merely admired but not pondered.

El Greco wanted his art to be the subject of thought that would put it on a par with the work of poets, rhetoriticians and philosophers who were considered the cream of the intellectual crop.

He surely succeeded.

Now look at the intensity of this portrait detail, that of poet (Friar) Hortensia Felix Paravicino (1609). El Greco’s portraits have an incisive soul for which he became famous. This alone is worth the cost of admission. The portrait of Paravicino is not “illustrated” or “represented”. It is truly deep and revealing. It is utterly human.

Says the book El Greco of Toledo:

Addressing himself to this vital quality of the portrait, Paravicino wrote in his sonnet that, looking at the portrait, he could not tell which of the two bodies (the painted one or his own) his soul was to inhabit.


In his art El Greco seems to be offering us a deal – I, El Greco, will give you something legendary, historical, revolutionary and original and will do so by abandoning outdated modes of painting. I do not accommodate every detail, of drapery, for instance, and do not care to. I choose not to “imitate”… I will “express”. I will never “measure”… I will paint with the heart and the eye.

He said:

“As I understand it the eye of the painter is like the ear of the musician, namely a great thing… In art things cannot be put into words because, in truth, the most supreme element of these arts (not to say all the arts) cannot be put into words. And thus those painters who have done something never dealt with measurements.”

El Greco’s paintings were frenzies of energy, a style of art that separated them from virtually all other art of the 2nd Millennium. And his often reckless-seeming approach to, say, drapery, must be excused. Because a scrupulous painting of drapery would seem out of place in his vibrant pictures.

In fact his drapery is unique in art history, a way of painting that served his revolutionary mind perfectly. He is said to have obsessively touched up and re-touched his seemingly casual paintings but never to have gone over the edge into illustrational perfection… or even near the edge.

Just look at the spirit in this church mural, a detail from Assumption of the Virgin (1577-79), originally installed in the Bernardine convent of Santo Domingo el Antiguo. Look at that earthy color! Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?

Then look at those beautifully executed figures. Picasso could never paint like that. Nor Georgia O’Keefe. Nor de Kooning. Nor Andy Warhol. Never in… a thousand years.

Look at the masterful foreshortening in the figures. It is extremely difficult to do. Try it. You’ll find out. That demonstrates El Greco’s command of the human form, something that no 20th century artist has ever done and few others have achieved in art history.

El Greco then seems to infuse each character with his or her own light, as if to represent God in each. And free from the rendering of, say, a strong external side light like Caravaggio, El Greco was able to reflect an infinite variety of radiance in his subjects, as seen in this detail (below) of Disrobing of Christ (1577-79).

He used faces in different intensities of light and shadow to delineate different depths of field. Then look at that pointing finger! It belongs to the figure behind it and to the left. But El Greco gave it luminosity and definition, to put it into a unique conceptual and spatial plane as if to detonate our concept of what a traditional painting should be.

And look at the roughness of the drapery painting, and that startling color palette in Disrobing. Fantastic, as if to break every rule. Bright in the center, and then subdued, brown, earth tones all around. Beautiful…

In fact after the act of painting itself, El Greco considered color to be more important even than form. And his paintings vibrate with the most subtle colors, a truly singular aesthetic that puts him into a class by himself.

About color, he said: “I hold the imitation of color to be the greatest difficulty in art.”

Notice that he says “the imitation of color”. Because remember that he rejected the “imitation” of nature.

Which suggests that color in his era was much more subdued and muted than the infinite and often bright and bold colors that we see today.

Notice the color in the Cardinal’s vestments and surroundings which probably more realistically reflect the man-made environment of 1600 than Raphael did in his more brightly colored portrait 94 years earlier.

But the real source for El Greco’s art was something called grazia, or “grace”. In the book El Greco of Toledo, it says:

A difficult word to translate, grazia referred to the beauty of the spirit made visible and was often said to make itself manifest by the quality of facility.

In short, El Greco believed that there was something higher and more profound than worldly concepts including ‘beauty’ and that his higher interpretation is yet another manifestation of “grace”.

When you look at his striking canvases you actually start to understand his concept of beauty. His figures do not look strange – they actually look beautiful because the whole composition is so immaculately ordered. It is really a startling experience and makes the viewer aware of the power of El Greco’s expansive mind.

Is it really the flame-like figures?

It is worth pondering…

Not all of El Greco’s work is expressionistic, however. Here is Mary Magdalen in Penitence of 1577:

It really is an unusual portrait, almost unnerving. Notice the ‘glint’ in the moisture in the eyes. It is not a spot but a line. Completely original. Look at the beautifully painted hair…

There are a litany of stories about El Greco’s personal and professional life in the El Greco of Toledo book. But those are not germane to my question here which is: Who was the greatest painter of all time?

Perhaps it indeed was El Greco of Toledo.

(Please bookmark this website. And please recommend this site to your friends. Thank you, Nikitas)

This entry was posted in Arts and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.