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El Greco and Toledo

Report of the lecture given by Siān Walters
on November 26th 2014

Our speaker was Siān Walters who is a lecturer for the National Gallery, NADFAS, the University of Surrey and a number of other art societies and colleges.  After graduating from Cambridge University, she spent four years in Italy and France where she worked for the Peggy Guggenheim Museum and the eminent scholar H C Robbins Landon.  She now spends much of her time lecturing abroad, particularly in Italy and Spain.

View of Toledo (c. 1596–1600, oil on canvas,
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Siān started her talk by showing us a painting by El Greco entitled View of Toledo, painted around 1596 to 1600.  She pointed out that this painting looks much more modern that the date would indicate.  Toledo was a beautiful small city with an ecclesiastical heart providing great scope for religious painting.

Kenneth Clark, the well-known art historian, described this View of Toledo as the first true expressionist painting.

The Dormition of the Virgin
(before 1567, tempera and gold on panel,
Holy Cathedral of the Dormition of the Virgin,
Hermoupolis, Syros)

Siān went on to talk about the distortions of form shown by El Greco in the majority of his paintings.  There is a sense of brooding in the colours as seen in The Dormition of the Virgin.

Some commentators at the time described him as an eccentric master or mad as a hatter.

A possible reason given for the distortions is that El Greco was going blind, but there is no proof of this theory.

He rejected painting in three dimensions, unlike the Mona Lisa, but was still commercially successful during his lifetime.

El Greco moved from his birth place of Crete to Venice, which was the centre of art patronage at the time, in 1567.  In Venice he studied under Titian and was also influenced by Tintoretto, who was the first to stretch out and distort his figures.

St Peter in Penitence
(1580s, oil on canvas, Bowes Museum)

He then moved to Toledo where his emphasis changed and he was massively influenced by the writings of Theresa of Avila.

It was here that he painted St Peter in Penitence and Mary Magdalen in Penitence in the 1580s.  From this time onwards a skull frequently appeared in El Greco’s paintings as a spiritual aid to the meditation on death.

During this period he was also influenced by Hieronymus Bosch and Raphael and was successful in selling many of his paintings, including a number to his group of women supporters.

El Greco died in Toledo in 1614, having produced most of his best-renowned paintings here.  El Greco’s work is said to be the precursor to Expressionism and Cubism and has been an influence on many twentieth century artists, including Picasso.

Maggie Atkins

Related Links (open in new windows):

El Greco 2014 - Toledo marks the fourth centenary of his death
Art History in Focus - Siān Walters' company website

Our guest lecturer Siān Walters transported us from wintry Cranleigh
to the heat and colour of sixteenth century Spain