Outstanding Spanish Artists: from El Greco till Goya

Diego Velazquez. Las Meninas (fragment)

Spain can be proud of brilliant artists. But if they were not in this country, no one would have been surprised.

After all, Spain was conservative at almost all times. And innovators rarely manifest themselves in an environment where there is little freedom for dissent.

Therefore, I was always amazed how these artists managed to show the world their artistic innovations!

How El Greco overtook his time by 300 years, working in the style of expressionism.

And Velazquez 200 years earlier than artists like Manet and Monet began to create in the style of impressionism!

I propose a closer look at these talented and brilliant Spanish artists.

1. El Greco (1541-1614).

El Greco. Portrait of an old man (Self-portrait).
El Greco. Portrait of an old man (Self-portrait). 1600. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Greek Spaniard or Spanish Greek Dominicos Theotocopoulos almost single-handedly launched the Spanish Renaissance.

Yes, the Spaniards may not overwhelm: they also had a renaissance. Thanks El Greco.

Creating mostly religious paintings, he boldly destroyed existing traditions.

Just look at The Disrobing of Christ.

El Greco. Disrobing of Christ.
El Greco. Disrobing of Christ. 1579. Toledo Cathedral in Spain.

Instead of several figures – a whole crowd. Instead of perspective, an impenetrable wall of characters. Instead of easy-to-read emotions, complex feelings.

Take a look at the incomprehensible glance of St. Mary. She seemed not to realize what was happening. Psychologists would call this a defensive reaction to extreme stress.

But for El Greco, this was not enough.

A few years later he created an even more astounding artwork. Not a picture – but a universe. The smallest embroidery stories in the garment of saints. A clear division of the world into two halves: worldly and heavenly.

This, of course, is about The Burial of the Count of Orgaz.

El Greco. Burial of the Count of Orgaz.
El Greco. Burial of the Count of Orgaz. 1588. Church of Santo Tome in Toledo.

And immediately, we notice elongated bodies.

Such a distortion of forms, most likely, El Greco spied on mannerists. For example, at Parmigianino.

The experience of creating Byzantine icons also affected (after all, he came from Greek Crete).

Over time, this feature became even more hypertrophied. This is clearly seen in his later artwork Laocoon.

El Greco. Laocoon.
El Greco. Laocoon. 1614. National Gallery of Washington.

The artist intuitively understood that through a change in form, his characters can tell us about their feelings. After all, they are devoid of movement.

Noticed that the cityscape in the background is also very unusual? It is closer to Van Gogh and Cezanne, rather than to the Renaissance aesthetics.

Nobody before El Greco in Western Visual Arts distorted the form like that.

And after him, artists sought realistic proportions. That’s why they considered him an eccentric and stupid for 300 years.

They forgot him and did not remember. And only at the end of the 19th century people realized how far ahead of his time he was. Now the newfound El Greco – forever in the history of art.

2. Diego Velazquez (1599-1660).

Diego Velazquez. Las Meninas (fragment with a self-portrait).
Diego Velazquez. Las Meninas (fragment with a self-portrait). 1656. Prado Museum, Madrid.

The innovations of Velazquez are very amazing. After all, he was a court artist!

This means that he had picky customers who do not care about innovation. If only it was “beautiful and similar.” In such conditions, any innovation easily withers away.

But not Velazquez’s innovation. By some miracle, the customers forgave him everything, apparently intuitively realizing that thanks to this artist they would be remembered after 500 years. And they were not mistaken.

However, the brutal Inquisition was not going to make concessions in everything to even such a great artist as Velazquez. Portraying nudity was considered a serious crime.

But Velazquez managed to create a masterpiece with a beautiful naked body, even in such conditions.

Diego Velazquez. Venus at her Mirror.
Diego Velazquez. Venus at her Mirror. 1647-1651. National Gallery of London.

He created his beautiful “Venus” in Italy. Then he secretly brought it to Spain and deposited it with the influential minister. And the Inquisition just did not break into his house in search of nudity.

Venus lets us know how Velazquez stood out. Due to its vitality. After all, there is no doubt that this is a real woman.

Beautiful, but real – her pose is relaxed and natural.

Presumably, this is the Italian lover of the artist. He prudently secured her by turning her back to us. And her face was reflected in a muddy mirror.

There, in Italy, Velazquez painted the legendary portrait of Pope Innocent X.

Diego Velazquez. Portrait of Pope Innocent X.
Diego Velazquez. Portrait of Pope Innocent X. 1650. Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome.

Velazquez was able to accurately convey the pope’s tough and treacherous character.

It would seem that the 75-year-old pontiff appears to us in the most magnificent form. But the prickly strong-willed gaze, pursed lips and the poisonous red color of the mantle, speak of the true values of this person.

How did Velasquez again manage to achieve vitality even in a ceremonial portrait?

Velazquez was lucky to meet the Pope, passing through one of the galleries of the Vatican. He walked alone and there was no familiar “mask” on his face.

It was then that Velazquez realized his character and transferred his impression to the canvas.

Returning from Italy, Velazquez continued to fulfill the duties of a courtier.

But do not think that Velazquez was unhappy. He strove to become an artist of the king, as he was vain.

Therefore, he meekly painted countless portraits of aristocrats. And he didn’t even disdain to take out the night pot of His Highness.

But among these works of the same type, there is an extremely unusual portrait of the royal family: Las Meninas.

Diego Velazquez. Las Meninas.
Diego Velazquez. Las Meninas. 1656. Prado Museum, Madrid.

This picture has a very unusual idea.

Velazquez decided to show us what his world looks like on the other side of the canvas. We see what is happening through the eyes of those who pose for the artist.

We see the artist working on a portrait of the King and his wife. And they stand in our place (or we stand in their place) and look at the artist.

And then the princess, their daughter, came into the room with her retinue to visit her parents.

Something like a “random shot” by Edgar Degas. When the artist preferred to depict his characters not on the stage, but in the backstage.

We notice one more feature in “Las Meninas”.

These are quick, vibrating brush strokes. However, the artist does not distinguish between the background and the characters. Everything is woven as if from a single substance.

That is how the impressionists will paint 200 years later, for example, Renoir or Monet.

Yes, skill knows no bounds … without fear of either the Inquisition or inert morality. Imagine what Velazquez could have created if he had lived in a freer era! In the Renaissance, for example.

3. Jose de Ribera (1591-1652).

Giuseppe Macpherson. Portrait of Jose de Ribera.
Giuseppe Macpherson. Portrait of Jose de Ribera. 1633-1656. Royal Collection, London.

“Little Spaniard” (as he was also called) José de Ribera moved to Italy at the age of 14. But his painting has always remained Spanish and was not at all like Italian academism.

Here in Italy he was amazed by Caravaggio painting. And, of course, he began working in the technique of tenebroso. This is when the main character is in the dark and only with a dim light is snatched from it.

This technique of Caravaggio was very suitable for the general style of Ribera. After all, he simply adored action-packed biblical and mythological stories.

His main characters are those who accept suffering for a lofty purpose. That was Prometheus.

Jose de Ribera. Prometheus.
Jose de Ribera. Prometheus. 1830. Private collection.

From the naturalness of Ribera takes a daze. And it is not only a very accurate image of the real body. It’s also about how the wounds look and how emotionally the hero reacts to his own suffering.

The fact is that Ribera visited prisons and witnessed the torture of prisoners with his own eyes.

Here is a Edgar Degas of the 17th century. Only Degas went to the theater to spy on the ballerinas. And this Spaniard went to places of detention and sought out believability for his martyrs.

After some time, the master began to move away from caravagism. However, fighters for high ideals are still his main characters. And one of such masterpieces is The Martyrdom of St. Philip.

Jose de Ribera. Martyrdom of St. Philip.
Jose de Ribera. Martyrdom of St. Philip. 1639. Prado Museum, Madrid.

We see the saint a few seconds before he is uprooted. We do not yet see the worst in the physical plane. But there is an opportunity to empathize because of the impending inevitable end and to admire the humility of the saint.

Ribera reinforces the drama, portraying the martyr strictly diagonally. His figure, lean and long, barely fits in the picture. As if Gulliver (spiritually) was captured at the mercy of small, miserable little people.

Ribera was also famous for drawing people with anomalies. Lapworms, dwarfs and women with a beard are also frequent heroes of his paintings.

But do not think that it was his painful desire. Such were the morals at court. The aristocracy loved to keep such people as jesters and essentially slaves. And the artists painted them for the fun of the guests.

One of the master’s most famous works is “Magdalena with her Husband and Son”.

Jose de Ribera. Magdalena Ventura with Husband and Son (Bearded Woman).
Jose de Ribera. Magdalena Ventura with Husband and Son (Bearded Woman). 1631. Taber Hospital in Toledo, Spain.

A woman at the age of 37 experienced a hormonal failure, as a result, her beard began to grow.

The customer demanded to draw her with a baby in her arms. Although by that time she was already over 50. Her sons grew up long ago, and her breasts were clearly not so magnificent. But the baby and the breasts made this mistake of nature more eloquent.

But unlike customers, Ribera sympathized with such people. And the eyes of the unhappy woman express the true attitude of the artist towards her.

Such a harsh and truthful painting will not be in demand for several centuries. And again it will become relevant only in the 19th century. For example, in the artworks of the French realists Courbet and Daumier.

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4. Francisco Goya (1746-1828).

Vicente Lopez Portany. Portrait of Francisco Goya.
Vicente Lopez Portany. Portrait of Francisco Goya. 1819. Prado Museum, Madrid.

Goya’s mother told her son: “You were born not as a rose, but as a bow. In the form of a bow you will die”. So allegorically she spoke of the obstinate and pugnacious character of her son.

Yes, Francisco Goya was a very temperamental person.

Once he left his signature on … the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He also abducted and seduced a nun from the monastery. Such stories say a lot.

He received a superficial education and wrote all his life with errors. But this did not prevent him from becoming the greatest artist. He was able to achieve the almost impossible.

He wrote a naked woman, but did not fall into the clutches of the Inquisition. However, Velazquez did this trick first.

He managed to remain a court painter almost all his life. But at the same time he actively expressed his civic position in his works. And the monarchs seemed to notice nothing.

He seduced one beautiful aristocrat after another, despite poor health and deafness.

This is one of the most daring artists, whose brush is like a sword, and colors are impudent words.

However, Goya also participated in real duels and verbal skirmishes more than once.

Let us take a look at his most outstanding works.

Thinking of Goya, we, of course, immediately recall his “Nude Maja”.

Francisco Goya. Nude Maja.
Francisco Goya. Nude Maja. 1795-1800. Prado Museum, Madrid.

For the first time, naked nature appeared in all its shameless splendor. And not stealthily, as Velazquez portrayed his naked Venus.

No chewing, but only sensuality and outright eroticism.

Goya worked for a long time at court, however, did not tolerate fawning and lies.

Just look at his painting “Family of King Charles IV”.

Francisco Goya. Family Portrait of Charles IV.
Francisco Goya. Family Portrait of Charles IV. 1800. Prado Museum, Madrid.

How much irony here is in relation to royal monarchs!

In the center, the author depicts Queen Mary, clearly hinting that she, not Karl, rules the country.

It is amazing how the artist was allowed to create such a contrast: between the attire of the royal couple and their faces! The luxury and brilliance of gold can not hide the mediocrity of the heroes and frank “simplicity” of the king.

Of course, we can’t ignore his masterpiece The Third of May 1808.

This is a picture of the heroism of ordinary Spaniards during the occupation by Napoleonic troops.

Francisco Goya. Third of May 1808 in Madrid.
Francisco Goya. Third of May 1808 in Madrid. 1814. Prado, Madrid.

Each of the doomed rebels looks different in a moment before the shot. Someone is humbly waiting, someone is praying, someone is crying.

But one Spaniard in a white shirt is ready to face death without fear.

The artist put him on his knees. And if you imagine that he will rise, it will turn out to be just a giant. And the guns of the French soldiers seemed to be directed only at him.

So Goya first showed the feat and courage of a simple person. Before him, among the heroic personalities, commoners were not portrayed. This is a completely new look at historical painting.

Undoubtedly, Goya today amazes with its courage, eccentricity and humanism. This was a master with a special attitude.

He is an artist of special strength for us, as a spiritual leader. He will not flatter the government, will not ignore the heroism of a simple person, and will not turn away from beauty, even if it is considered sinful.


Four great painters, four Spaniards are among the creators of contemporary art. Despite the fact that most of them lived 200-300 years ago.

Their artworks inspire contemporary artists. They give an impetus that is still fueling world culture.

We, in turn, are grateful, preserve their heritage and, of course, admire.


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