El Greco: Ambition and Defiance

Saturday, Mar 7 – Oct 19, 2020

111 S. Michigan Ave.
Chicago, IL 60603

Note: Due to COVID-19 this exhibition has been extended through October 19, 2020


This major exhibition charts the career of the artist known simply as El Greco. Over 55 works from across the world trace not only the development of his distinctive style but also the astounding ambition that drove him to relentlessly pursue success.

Born in Crete as Domenikos Theotokopoulos (1541–1614), El Greco trained in the traditional manner of Byzantine icon painting. He moved to Venice in 1567 to learn a new artistic approach, absorbing developments in Venetian Renaissance painting through the lens of artists such as Titian and Tintoretto. The works El Greco painted during his time in Venice, however, reveal both his embrace of and struggles to fully adapt to this manner of painting.

Following this transformative period, El Greco went to Rome, probably in an attempt to attract patronage within the papal circle. There his acceptance into the elevated circle of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese brought a close association with the painter Giulio Clovio and the erudite historian and collector Fulvio Orsini. El Greco’s portraits, allegories, and religious paintings between 1570 and 1577 reflect these relationships as well as his complicated engagement with Michelangelo and other artistic luminaries of the 16th century.

With no major commissions in Rome, El Greco moved on to Spain in 1577. He quickly earned a major commission for the altarpiece for the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo in Toledo, the result being the monumental The Assumption of the Virgin (1577/79). Of a scale and format that he had never previously attempted, The Assumption became a showpiece for the artist as he attempted to mold a new career for himself in Spain. 

Despite this success, El Greco was unable to secure commissions from the powerful authorities of Toledo or from the most consequential of artistic patrons, King Philip II. He turned instead to carving out a private clientele, finding enthusiastic patronage among the local intelligentsia and developing a flourishing career as a portraitist. Alongside paintings of theologians, writers, and attorneys, he was commissioned to decorate a series of private altars and family chapels. 

The exhibition brings the investigation of El Greco’s career full circle with one of his very last paintings, The Adoration of the Shepherds. This altarpiece was created for his own tomb in Santo Domingo el Antiguo. This was the same church that housed his first great altarpiece and the same city that the preacher and poet Hortensio Félix Paravicino said in his eulogy to the artist, “gave him his brushes.”

This exhibition is organized by the Art Institute of Chicago; the Réunion des musées nationaux-Grand Palais, Paris; and the Musée du Louvre.