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For almost any other artist alive in Counter-Reformation Europe, such simple ingredients would have proved insufficient. The subject would have been infused with emotion, the features of Saint Dominic’s face perhaps contorted to exaggeration by the depth of his devotion to God. El Greco requires no such artifice, in the knowledge that his extraordinary and lively technique, his fascination in both colour and in light and its sources were worth more to his art than any such affectation.
Though initially a painter of icons in the Byzantine style in his native Crete, El Greco’s arrival in Venice in 1568 precipitated a remarkable transformation in his art. Struck immediately by contemporary Venetian artists’ extreme use of colour and the dynamism of their technique, the very linear nature of his earliest works was soon entirely foregone. In 1570 he studied the works of Raphael and Michelangelo in Rome, eventually rejecting their excessive disegno in favour of the Venetians’ creation of art through light and colour, in his view the only possible means of imitating nature. In Rome he was patronised by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese who gave him lodging but, whether because of his lack of public commissions in Rome or due to his interest in the decoration of the Escorial, El Greco left Italy for Spain and after a few months in Madrid arrived in Toledo in July 1577 where he would remain until his death in 1614.
El Greco received public commissions almost from the moment of his arrival in Madrid, indeed painting for the King the Glory of Philip II in 1577, yet from 1578 he decided to settle permanently in Toledo with his young family and to dedicate himself to a principally local clientele.1 He specialised in religious, or devotional, paintings for private clients and continued to execute them in his workshop from 1577 until his death. The earliest of his single figure saints date from the late 1570s. Though they became more sculptural, like the rest of his output in the 1580s, such as the Saint Francis in the Joslyn Art Museum, by the mid-1590s and turn of the century a sketchiness and greater fluency had returned (see, for example, the series of Apostles in Toledo cathedral and the Casa El Greco).2 It is interesting to observe the gradual softening of El Greco’s forms through his depictions of Saint Dominic and Saint Francis. The Joslyn Saint Francis is amongst the earliest of his saints; of precisely the same composition, but perhaps ten years later, is the Saint Francis in the Torellò collection in Barcelona which is rooted in the earlier style but with a freshness of execution that animates its surface, though still the rich, solid forms remain, notably in the clouds (fig. 1).3 Then the present Saint Dominic, considered by the majority of scholars to date from his later period of fluency, circa 1600 or shortly thereafter, is governed throughout by a silkiness and lightness of touch quite the opposite of the dense and forms and surface of the Joslyn Saint Francis.
Though Saint Francis was treated by El Greco more often (Mayer lists fifty-six autograph paintings of him, Wethey twenty-four), and in ten different ‘types’ catalogued by Wethey, Saint Dominic was still widely portayed by El Greco and his workshop. Wethey considers there to be three ‘types’ for St. Dominic; one, of which most versions exist, being of the type of the present work; a second showing the saint in an interior;4 and a third showing Saint Dominic holding a small wooden crucifix, known only through a good copy in the Museo de Santa Cruz after the engraving by Diego Astor.5 Of the four versions of the present ‘type’, all of which, like this one, are signed on the rock lower left, the earliest is considered to be that now in the collection of Placido Arango in Madrid which is generally dated to circa 1585-90.6 Its forms are more solid and sculptural than the later versions. The other three versions, including the present lot, were probably all painted after 1600 in the master’s mature style; the other two are in the Sacristry of Toledo Cathedral and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (fig. 2).7 An old copy in the collection of the Hispanic Society of America was undoubtedly made after the present example rather than any of the other versions mentioned above.8 The later versions, in common with the majority of El Greco's output from circa 1600 onwards, likely involve a modest degree of studio participation.
Though compositionally similar, no two versions are the same: the folds fall completely differently in all four pictures; in the Arango version they are smooth and neat, in the others more crumpled. The Arango version shows Saint Dominic at his youngest, the Boston picture at his most emaciated and gaunt and, with it, filling the least amount of the picture’s surface. The features of Saint Dominic’s face, too, vary from one to another, each one feeling like a one-off painted portrait. All four, however, are governed by the same strong diagonals, notably those of the shaft of light to the left of the saint’s head, the starkly lit crucifix and the receding landscape behind. The crucifix itself is one that appears not just in these four paintings but in many of those depicting Saint Francis, including the best such one in the Torelló collection, Barcelona.9 The Saint Dominic composition is, as Wethey put it, one of El Greco’s major inventions, and one his most successful, so that the large number of autograph versions is understandable.
It is no accident that in this painting, and indeed in all such depictions of Dominic, the saint appeals to us through his very down-to-earth and human appearance. He is no idealised saintly figure but rather someone that we recognise, with whom we can empathise. The principles of the Counter-Reformation dictated that art must inspire congregations to piety, and what better way than by portraying Saint Dominic as a humble soul not unlike those that the image wished to inspire. Similarly, El Greco’s numerous paintings of Saint Francis never focus on his miracles but rather depict him in humble prayer in the wilderness - his piety enhanced by his terribly gaunt features and the barrenness of the setting. Saint Dominic too is isolated in the wilderness with nothing but his habit and crucifix. El Greco’s depictions of Saint Dominic reflect to a very great degree the attitudes of contemporary reformers such as the Dominican Luis de Granada who would retire into the wilderness to pray and repent. And it was at this time that a chasm emerged in the Dominican order, between those, led by Bartolomé Carranza, former Archbishoip of Toledo, who considered primary ‘good works’ as penance and prayer, and those who maintained that preaching, scholarship and education were of equal importance. El Greco’s siding with the supporters of Carranza is, in all his representations of Saint Dominic, unambiguous.
The viewer could thus more easily access the painting’s message via a very human connection with its principal subject. But that very real subject is, however, set before a very unreal and almost supernatural backdrop. From the point of his arrival in Spain El Greco’s paintings tackle this question of what Davies terms the ‘dualism between heaven and earth’ - he is fascinated by finding a way of connecting his painting’s subject with its congregation, and vice versa.10 So, where in this painting and in all such paintings of single-figure saints, El Greco invites us into the subject via the saint’s own humanity, so in grander works, such as the early altarpieces of the Resurrection (1577-9; Toledo, Santo Domingo el Antiguo) and the Crucifixion (c. 1580; Paris, Musée du Louvre), he includes half-length saints at their base, the same size and at the same height as the actual priests standing at the altar in front of them.11 These half-length saints act thus as intercessors between the divine and the physical, between priest and painting. They too are portraits, in a sense like the donor figures of religious commissions from earlier in the century; they are human, humble and un-idealised. Similar pictorial tricks contribute further to our connection with Saint Dominic in the present work: he fills the entire picture plane; he is compelled forward into our space, his white habit nearly spilling over the frontal edge. Behind him is the divine light of heaven, within his reach but not ours (yet) and, like the half-length Saint Idelfonso in the Toledo Resurrection, Saint Dominic is here the intercessor or stepping stone between us (the physical) and the divine.
Much has been conjectured about the inspiration behind El Greco’s concept of light in his religious paintings. Just as he does not define form and matter in his figures by slavish repetition of nature, nor does he the ambient world that those figures inhabit. He relies not on nature but on an idea in his mind. For El Greco, as he famously said, the language of art is celestial in origin.
"Art is everywhere you look for it, hail the twinkling stars for they are God's careless splatters."
His belief in the concept of light metaphysics, where “initially radiant light emanates from God and is imparted to angels who transmit it to man whose soul is thus spiritually illuminated”, is almost certainly born from the Pseudo Dionysius the Aeropagite, a Greek copy of whose Celestial Hierarchy features in the inventory of his library.12 There is nothing literal in El Greco’s concept of form or light, just as there is nothing literal about his interpretation of the scriptures. It is curiously contradictory that his depiction here of Saint Dominic is so literal, that we can sense his bony frame beneath his heavy cloak and mantle, but that the setting for him is quite the opposite. But the supernatural light that renders the setting so unreal and that thus causes this contradiction emanates of course from God, and a connection with God through dutiful prayer is our ultimate goal. God’s divine light illuminates Saint Dominic, and we are to hope that by following his example, it will illuminate us too.
The 1937 exhibition catalogue erroneously identifies this painting as the version formerly in the collection of A. Sanz Brémon, Valencia and latterly in the Placido Arango collection (Wethey no. 203).
Though unknown to him when compiling his 1926 catalogue on El Greco, when the painting was brought to his attention at the 1931 exhibition, Dr. August L. Mayer considered this a fully autograph "fine, signed work by the Master". Mayer later included the work in his own exhibition in Paris in 1937.
The ownership of the Marqués de Aldama was a supposition of Tomás Harris and is as yet unsubstantiated.
1. The Glory of Philip II was not well-received by the Hieronymite congregation at the Escorial and it was removed from the church into the King’s private collection; see Wethey, under literature, vol. II, pp. 75-6, no. 117, reproduced vol. I, figs. 65 & 66.
2. See, respectively, Wethey, op. cit., vol. II, p. 123, no. 222, reproduced vol. I, fig. 273; and Ibid., vol. II, pp. 104-106, nos. 173-185, reproduced vol. I, figs. 218-230.
3. Ibid., p. 123, no. 223, reproduced vol. I, fig. 274.
4. Ibid., vol. II, p. 114, reproduced vol. I, fig. 252.
5. Ibid., reproduced vol. I, fig. 251.
6. Ibid., vol. II, pp. 112-3, reproduced vol. I, fig. 247.
7. Ibid., p. 113, nos. 204 and 205, both reproduced vol. II, figs. 248 & 249.
8. See A.L. Mayer, Domenico Theotocopuli. El Greco, Munich 1926, p. 37, no. 223a, reproduced.
9. Ibid., vol. II, p. 123, no. 223, reproduced vol. I, fig. 274.
10. D.Davies, ‘El Greco and the Spritual Reform Movements in Spain’, in Studies in the History of Art. El Greco: Italy and Spain, vol. 13, Washington 1984, p. 69.
11. Wethey, op. cit., vol. II, p. 7, no. 8, reproduced vol. I, figs. 52, 53, 360; & vol. II, p. 49, no. 74, reproduced vol. I, fig. 78.
12. Ibid., p. 71.
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