Lot 28
  • 28

Attributed to Doménikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco

30,000 - 40,000 GBP
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  • Doménikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco
  • Pietà
  • Pen and brown ink and different shades of brown wash, over traces of black chalk


N. Turner, 'A Proposal for El Greco as a Draftsman', Master Drawings, vol. XLV, no. 3 (2007), p. 299, reproduced p. 301, fig. 14

Catalogue Note

This fascinating and accomplished drawing, with its highly individual technique, was published in 2007 by Nicholas Turner in a ground-breaking article, where he argued that this drawing and a number of others by the same very distinctive hand are all the work of El Greco, and should be added to the very small corpus of just five universally accepted sheets, which provide the starting point for our understanding of his draughtsmanship.1 Turner’s thesis has been met with varying degrees of acceptance, but his arguments are in many respects highly persuasive, and the proposed attribution should be taken very seriously.  If, as seems entirely possible, this drawing is indeed by El Greco, it is a sheet of considerable significance.

The composition is closely related to that of another Pietà, on the recto of a double-sided sheet, formerly in the collection of Janos Scholz and now in the Morgan Library and Museum, New York.2  These drawings share the same frontal representation of the subject, with the seated body of the dead Christ resting on the Madonna, his head on her left shoulder, supported from behind by an angel (whose position is studied twice in the Morgan sheet).  The addition of the Mary Magdalene in the lower right corner of the present sheet, kneeling on the ground to anoint Christ’s feet, balances and completes the composition, which appears still unresolved in the Morgan version.  Both drawings are characterized by a powerful luminosity, with strong, contrasting shadows built up with skilful, freely drawn and highly pictorial strokes, executed with the point of the brush or with pen and ink, enriched with abundant wash in several shades of brown that here covers the entire sheet.  The two Pietàs share idiosyncrasies of graphic vision that indicate they are surely the work of the same draftsman, most strikingly in the way the elongated torso of Christ’s body contrasts strongly with the awkwardly foreshortened, lumpish legs.   

Turner’s pioneering 2007 article investigated the artistic personality of a ‘mysterious draftsman’ responsible for a known and very recognisable corpus of drawings, including these two Pietàs, works which have often been associated with Palma il Giovane (c.1548-1628) and occasionally with Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-1594), but which Turner suggested are the work of the great Spanish painter, El Greco, produced during his Italian period (1565-1576).  In a number of cases Turner cited revealing connections with El Greco’s paintings or with those of his studio, which help to substantiate his proposed attribution for the entire group of drawings.    

In his analysis, Turner discusses the common stylistic characteristic of the group: their luminosity and coloristic effects, their powerful and free execution, and the emphatic pictorial force which reflects an artist ‘more at ease working with the brush than the pencil’.  He has rightly noted that the artist responsible for this group, who transcends literal description of forms and creates ‘astonishingly emotive effects’, is clearly very different in both personality and calibre from Palma, whose graphic style is well known, and who could never have been responsible for such inventive and experimental drawings.  These very pictorial works, mostly drawn with the point of the brush, are, he wrote ‘better understood as monochrome paintings on paper’, adding that the artist was ‘presumably also one who would be happier using colour rather than monochrome’.  The rejection of the traditional attribution to Palma of present sheet and its companion in the Morgan Library is also reinforced by the pen and ink study of a female figure on the verso of the Morgan drawing (possibly a study for a Woman of Samaria), which differs greatly from Palma’s well known graphic style in this medium.3

Turner believes that our drawing was executed after the Morgan one, in which the forms are still undefined and the composition is still in fieri.  There, shapes are not yet fully formed and the numerous and intricate lines in search of a solution ‘seem to dissolve the figures’.  There are also abundant pentimenti, whereas in the present drawing the artist has resolved many of these issues, and clarified positions and forms.  Three paintings representing the Pietà have been linked with El Greco’s Italian period.  Two of these, in the John G. Johnson collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and in the collection of the Hispanic Society of America, New York, are related versions of a composition that is clearly strongly indebted to Michelangelo.4  This inspiration can also be discerned in the two drawings, and Turner suggested that El Greco knew Michelangelo’s sculpted Pietà, now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Florence, but formerly in Rome.  The unfinished sculpture, executed around 1550-53, could have been seen by El Greco during his stay in Rome in 1570, which Turner considers a plausible dating for our drawing and that in the Morgan.  El Greco’s admiration for the great Renaissance master is manifested in another drawing executed in that same year, the superb reworking of Michelangelo’s sculpture ‘Il Giorno’, once part of Vasari’s famous Libro dei Disegni and now in Munich, which is one of the few securely attributable drawings by El Greco.

Possibly from the same period is a third painting of the Pietà, in the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, attributed to El Greco in 1903 by Charles Loeser, who subsequently changed his mind and rejected his own attribution.6  Turner noted, however, that the Stuttgart painting includes the motif of the Magdalene anointing Christ’s feet, shown just as in the present study, and suggested that Loeser’s original opinion should perhaps not be dismissed after all.7  A final Pietà that Turner added to the discussion is a canvas in the Cassa di Risparmio, Udine, that has been published ever since 1960 as Palma il Giovane.8  Palma and El Greco could, however, have met in Titian’s studio, and Turner suggests that Palma could at that time have adopted a similar vocabulary to that of El Greco, although ‘his voice is not nearly as expressive’.   

Shortly after the appearance of Turner’s article in 2007, the debate was further complicated by the publication of an article by Stefania Mason Rinaldi, in which she discussed the same ‘Mystery Master’, making many stylistic observations similar to Turner’s, but concluding that the drawings should be attributed to Alessandro Maganza (1556-1630).9  Mason Rinaldi had encountered this distinctive draftsman, described by her as closer to Tintoretto than Palma, among the large corpus of drawings given to Palma il Giovane.  She based her attribution to Maganza on the connection between one of the drawings in the group, The Last Supper (another a double-sided sheet formerly in Janos Scholz collection and now in the Morgan Library10), and Maganza’s painted version of the subject, datable to 1587-89, in the Chapel of the Santissimo Sacramento, in the Cathedral in Vicenza.11  Mason Rinaldi’s theory is fascinating and there are certainly links with the Vicenza painting, yet Maganza’s graphic style as it has previously been understood never attains such vigour, or power of execution.  

The most recent contribution to the debate is Rick Scorza’s 2014 Master Drawings article, in which he discusses and supports Turner’s attribution of this group of drawings to El Greco, exploring the connection between draughtsmanship and calligraphy, an investigation prompted by Turner’s recent claim that El Greco’s handwriting can be recognized in the inscriptions on some of the drawings in the group.12

1 Turner, op. cit., pp. 292-296, all reproduced
2 Inv. no. 1982.46; Turner, op. cit., p. 299, reproduced fig. 13
3 Inv. no. 1982.46; Ibid., reproduced p. 304, fig. 19
4 Ibid., pp. 299, one reproduced p. 302, fig. 15
5 Staatlische Graphische Sammlung, inv. no. 13756; ibid., p. 292, reproduced fig. 1
6 Ibid., p. 302
7 Loc.cit.
8 Ibid., p. 303 fig. 16 (as Attributed to El Greco)
S. Mason Rinaldi, ‘Da una costola di Palma il Giovane: il disegnatore mistrerioso’, Artibus et Historiae, 28,  no. 55, 2007, pp. 115-129
10 Inv. no. 1981.96; Ibid., p. 116, reproduced recto and verso figs. 1-2
11 Ibid., reproduced p. 117
12 R. Scorza, ‘El Greco: “Calligrafia”, “Disegno”, and Context’, Master Drawings, vol. 52, no.4 (2014), no. 4, pp. 429-452