The early history of the Saint Joseph is unknown, although it appears to have been for most of the last century in a French private collection as a depiction of Saint Peter, although with a traditional attribution to El Greco. The paint layer of the painting has survived very well, as a recent restoration has revealed (see fig. 1), and with its rediscovery, a fuller and in depth examination of the painting has become possible. Leticia Ruiz Gómez has studied the present canvas first hand, and has presented a full and compelling study of the picture (see Literature). The painting itself presents the saint in a pensive attitude, his head listing to the left, resting on the fisted hand of his right arm. El Greco endows the figure with a strong sense of corporality, and Joseph’s face and beard are slightly pushed aside by the weight and strength of his pose. To add to this illusion, the artist has even suggested a few errant wisps of grey hair trapped against the saint’s knuckles, painted with just a few flicks of white and black paint. The arm itself, which runs downward to just left of the center of the composition, is particularly beautifully rendered, not in the free and painterly style of much of the rest of the canvas, but in a carefully modeled, smoother finish (“con una factura suelta que combina las pinceladas gruesas y directas del mano con los arrastres que modulan volumetricamente el brazo o los toques a punta de pincel aplicados de manera pormenorizada y decisiva”).1 Such solidity of form, which fades away in the artist’s later works, appears to have been a holdover from his sojourn in Rome, and is comparable to other figures that he painted at the same time such as the brawny carpenter at the lower right of the Espolio, or indeed that of Christ himself in the Holy Trinity (Museo del Prado, inv. P00824).2 The Saint Joseph is painted on a warm ground layer, of an orange pink, over which was applied in a “brushy” manner a layer of rich blue, outlining the figure. This is a technique typical of this moment in El Greco’s career. Another interesting technical fact, which only became apparent after examination, is the type of cloth on which the Saint Joseph is made; it is a canvas woven with a pattern of intertwined rhombuses, and is seen in another El Greco painting of this moment, the San Benito (Museo del Prado, Madrid, inv. P00817), painted as part of the altar for the Church of Santo Domingo el Antiguo, Toledo, in 1577-79.
Theories about the Saint Joseph have been proposed to place it within the corpus of El Greco’s works and to understand more fully the artist’s intention when he created the work. Ruiz has noted the pictures relationship to a painting of the Holy Family with Saint John the Baptist known only through a black and white photograph conserved in the archive of the Prado Museum (see fig 2).3 That painting is clearly by a follower of the artist, or conceivably is a weak studio work; what is striking, however, is that the figure of Saint Joseph in the upper left of the composition replicates the pose in the present canvas. This has lead to some speculation that the present canvas is a fragment from a much larger canvas of the Holy Family, perhaps corresponding to the composition known only in the photograph. An x-ray of the present canvas brings this assertion into question, however (see fig. 3). Study of the film shows broadly and freely applied brushstrokes outlining the contours of Saint Joseph and his drapery, but no evidence of the figure of the young Baptist whose head would have been placed in the center of Saint Joseph's chest. Nor does the drapery in that area look in anyway added or altered at a later date. Ruiz posits that El Greco may have found inspiration for a larger Holy Family from Paolo Veronese’s altarpiece of circa 1551-55 of the Holy Family with Saints Catherine and Anthony Abbot , San Francesco della Vigna, Venice. In that composition, Saint Joseph is similarly shown with his head resting on his hand, but with his left, not right one. She notes that in that composition the Infant Baptist is to the left, but this would lead the composition much further away from that preserved in the black and white photograph.
Another possibility is that this Saint Joseph may have been a fully worked up sketch for a now lost autograph Holy Family, much along the lines of the composition mentioned earlier. The position of Saint Joseph at the extreme left of the picture plane has parallels in other works by El Greco, such as the Holy Family with Mary Magdalen in the Cleveland Museum of Art (inv. 1926.247). Although that picture dates later than the present canvas, it too shows Saint Joseph relegated to the far left, forced to lean in to hold out a bowl of fruit. Ruiz also finds parallel with another altarpiece in which Saint Joseph is similarly isolated, the Holy Family with Saints Ildefonso, John the Evangelist and a donor figure of 1589 by Blas de Prado, who was active in Toledo at the same moment as El Greco. In that painting, Saint Joseph is shown half length behind a stone bench, also leaning on his right arm and draped in a yellow mantle. The motif of the “pensive” Joseph may have derived from a drawing of Albrecht Dürer of the Holy Family (Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin, inv. KdZ 4174), although how El Greco would have had access to that is unclear. Whatever its source, it could be that El Greco was working the idea up to use in a different composition. El Greco was a careful artist and very willing to adapt his ideas and use them more than once; indeed, the exact pose of the Madonna and Child which appears in the London Holy Family is employed by the artist in reduced size in the Vision of Saint Lawrence of circa 1578-81. This connection to that painting further strengthens Ruiz Gómez’s argument that this Saint Joseph should be dated to 1577-80, at the same time as these other well-known paintings by the Master.
1 See L. Ruiz, op. cit., p. 66, trans. “with a loose handling that combines bold and direct brush strokes for the hand with dragging ones that modulate the arm volumetrically or with touches with the tip of the brush, applied in a detailed and confident manner.”
2 See L. Ruiz Gómez, El Greco Painter and Master, p. 33.
3 The photograph was sent for an opinion by an English collector to the Prado in 1957, though no record of the response made at the time is extant.
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