El Greco by Dr Phil Welsby

El Greco the long and the tall of it
Domenikos Theotokopoulos, or “The Greek”, absorbed an unusually wide variety of formal influences, from Byzantine icon painting to studies in Rome and Venice, yet he claimed to always draw “from life”, despite the striking distortions of angle and colour in his style. After experimenting with Renaissance Mannerism and settling in Toledo, where the prevailing Spanish Mysticism proved more receptive to his approach, he gradually exaggerated the incipient distortions of such masters as Michelangelo and Titian -such as vivid colours and elongated figures- to the point where they seemed resembled a hallucinatory epiphany. This was often applied to religious subjects, but also to landscapes and contemporary portraits, making every subject appear luminous and striking.

This approach found few immediate successors but was lionised by the Cubists (especially Picasso) and Expressionists (such as the Blaue Reiter group) for its adventurous angularity and emotional force. His distorted images caused some to speculate that he must have seen the world in this way because he had an unusual form of astigmatism and thus painted his distorted worldview. This is a fallacy because, if had such astigmatism, he would have seen his canvases distorted in the same way, and would, and would thus have painted the actual size, and thus cancelling out any distortion. The “astigmatism explanation” belittles El Greco’s gradual artistic development (his mature period started in his forties, later than many other artists of the time) and his own individual imagination.

Anstis conducted research used lenses to stretch visual images. Viewers using lenses were shown a square and asked to copy it at the time drew a square copy but when drawing from memory they drew a tall, thin rectangle elongated vertically. Thus pictures painted from memory showed an El Greco effect, but copy portraits “from life” did not. Other studies Anstis conducted showed the elongations were an artistic expression and not a result of eye problems (1).
Other supporting evidence is that El Greco sketched his figures on canvas in normal proportions and elongated them only when he painted over them. He painted angels taller and thinner than mortals on the same canvas, again suggesting a deliberate mannerism.
1..Anstis, Stuart M. (2002). “Was El Greco Astigmatic?”. Leonardo. 35 (2): 208. doi:10.1162/00240940252940612. ISSN 1530-9282

Philip D Welsby and Dominic Bannister
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