In addition to the many prestigious ecclesiastical commissions he undertook, El Greco produced a number of exquisite and lusciously painted canvases for a private clientele which extended throughout the breadth of Spain. These paintings were of a smaller format, intended for personal devotion and contemplation. Sometimes the subjects and even the compositions were adapted from his monumental public altarpieces, and were in effect “reduced replicas” of works that had achieved success and had secured his fame. Other compositions, however, were created specifically for this smaller format, scaled to be placed in private chapels, in homes, or in the collections of dedicated connoisseurs1.
This beautiful Annunciation is an example of the latter category. No large altarpiece of this composition exists, although a number of versions of “private” size are known; these are of varying degrees of quality, and most are clearly studio or school works2. The Toledo picture is of superior quality and had for many years been regarded as the prime example of the composition. However, a signed canvas in Budapest is now generally considered to be the prime version, despite Wethey’s classification of it as a workshop replica3.
Indeed, the quality of the painting throughout and the confidence of the brushwork are typical of El Greco’s style of circa 1600. It is freely painted on a reddish-brown ground which is left to show through in parts of the composition, giving El Greco’s extraordinary palette a deep and stark resonance. The flesh tones are solidly modeled, and beautifully realized, elegantly elongated in El Greco’s idiosyncratic style. Certain other passages are almost impressionistic in their handling: the Virgin’s veil, the flaming flowers in the vase, the dove of the Holy Ghost. Typical of El Greco’s working technique is the use of unfinished sections at the edges of the composition to clean his brush. In the case of this Annunciation, a strip of about 2 inches along the left edge of the canvas from top to bottom is left unpainted; this apparently would have been cropped off or covered during the final framing process. This strip has such marks, mostly in lead white, but also in dark blue and blue/black pigments, where an intent El Greco appears to have unloaded his brush directly onto the canvas rather than turning around from his easel. This distinctive habit appears in a number of other works of the 1590s and early 1600s as well. It is seen in the unfinished spandrels and edges in some of the canvases El Greco produced for his famous and well documented altarpiece of the late 1590s painted for Dona Maria de Aragon, including the Crucifixion, Pentecost and Resurrection (all Prado, Madrid), as well as the roundels of the Annunciation and Nativity for the altarpiece painted in 1603-5 for the Hospital de la Caridad, Illescas (in situ).
The theme of the Annunciation is one that El Greco returned to often and throughout his career. The earliest known depiction was painted on one of the wings of the “Modena Triptych” soon after his arrival in Venice in 15684. The composition of that painting does not differ vastly in conception from the Toledo canvas: the Virgin is shown at a small table, looking up from her book to the right to see the Angel Gabriel his right arm stretched out towards her. Of course, the mis-en-scène in the Modena panel is thoroughly informed by the Venetian Renaissance, and the picture reveals none of the unique and idiosyncratic vision that El Greco would develop, but rather betrays a young artist struggling with a variety of influences and trying to synthesize them coherently. Just a few years later, however, El Greco painted an Annunciation that was more developed and showed his artistic direction. An Annunciation in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza of the mid 1570s appears to have been painted by El Greco while in Rome, just before his final departure for Spain5. Although the painting is still Italianate—and still rather Venetian—in its flavor, the nascent characteristics of the artist’s style are visible. The colors appear practically unmixed on the canvas, like in the much later Toledo Annunciation, and the Archangel Gabriel holds his hand out in the same, languid pose.
The greatest of the artist’s treatments of the subject, is the central canvas from the aforementioned Dona Maria de Aragon Altarpiece of about 1597 (Prado, Madrid). This is among El Greco’s greatest and most mystical pictures, and would have made a huge impression on the art collecting class in Madrid. At least one reduced replica of that picture was made (now Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, Madrid) and this is perhaps one of the reasons for El Greco’s creation of the present canvas, as a pared-down reprise of a popular subject. The Toledo Annunciation would seem to post-date these treatments, and does retain some of the unusual qualities of the subject. The theme of the Annunciation seems to have taken on a particularly spiritual significance for El Greco at this moment; elements such as the burning flowers, an unusual iconography, and the prominence of the Holy Ghost as agent of the Incarnation were potent elements of Counter-Reformation thinking and would have charged the painting with special significance6.
This painting will be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné on El Greco by José Alvarez Lopera, which is due to be published in 2007. We are grateful to the author of the catalogue raisonné for affirming that, in his opinion (following firsthand inspection), this painting is largely an autograph work by El Greco, with a limited amount of studio participation.
1 At El Greco’s death in 1614, a number of such canvases of this format are recorded in his studio of a variety of subjects (Toledo, Archivo Histórico Provincial de Toledo, P-2523, J. Alvarez Lopera, El Greco. Estudio y Catálogo, pp. 288-297).
2 These include: formerly Oscar Cintas collection, Havana (by Jorge Manuel); Ohara Collection, Japan (by the Workshop/ Jorge Manuel?); Museum of Art, Sao Paulo, Brazil (School of Jorge Manuel); Zuloaga Collection, Zumaya, Spain (Jorge Manuel or School); formerly Danielson Collection, Groton Mass. (Copy); Museo de Sant Cruz, Toledo (School of El Greco), see Wethey, op. cit. pp. 169-171.
3 Wethey considered the Budapest painting to a workshop replica, although he had never seen it in the original.
4 Galleria Estense, Modena. This triptych was acquired by Duke Ercole d'Este in 1803; it was previously in the Obizzi del Catajo collection, Venice.
5 See Gabriele Finaldi’s entry in El Greco, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum, New York, 2003, p. 112, cat. no. 16
6 For a discussion of the influence of the thinking of the mystic Alonso de Orozco on the iconography of the Dona Maria de Aragon Annunciation see R.G. Mann, El Greco and his Patrons, Cambridge 1986, p. 80; Keith Christiansen discusses the unusual element of the burning rose bush, and notes Titian’s earlier depiction of it in the Annunciation at Sal Salvatore, Venice (see El Greco, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum, New York, 2003, p. 170, cat. no. 40).
Oil on canvas
Domenikos El Greco Dominico Dominikos Menegos Theotokopoulos El Greco
Toledo (Spain), Third Centennial of El Greco, 1914;
Paris, Durand-Ruel, Spring, 1916;
Cleveland, Cleveland Museum of Art, Art through ages, 1931;
Chicago, Century of Progress Exhibition, 1933, no. 168;
Brooklyn, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Spanish Painting, 1935, no. 37;
Cleveland, Cleveland Museum of Art, The Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition, 1936, no. 154;
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Museum of Art, Masters of Spanish Painting, April-May, 1937;
Paris, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, El Greco, 1937, no. 33;
Toledo, Ohio, Toledo Museum of Art, Spanish Painting, (cat. by J. Gudiol), 1941, no. 4;
San Francisco, M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, El Greco, 1947, no. 8;
Seattle, Seattle World's Fair, Fine Art Pavillion, April-October, 1962;
Columbia, Missouri, University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology, Reopening of the European and American Gallery, 1986-87 (as Studio of El Greco).
49 5/8 by 32 in.; 126.1 by 81.3 cm.
M. Barrés and P. Lafond, El Greco, Paris, n.d., p. 142;
M.B. Cossío, El Greco, Madrid 1908, vol. I, no. 301;
A.L. Mayer, Domenico Theotocopuli El Greco, Munich 1926, no. 7, reproduced p. 7;
M. Legendre and A. Hartmann, Domenikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco, Paris 1937, pp. 102, 503, reproduced;
L. Goldscheider, El Greco, New York 1938, p. 24, reproduced plate 131;
J. Babelon, El Greco, Paris 1946, reproduced plate 78;
L. Rudrauf, "The Annunciation: Study of a Plastic Theme and its Variations in Painting and Sculpture," in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, VII, June 1949, p. 342, reproduced fig. 7;
J. Camón Aznar, Dominico Greco, Madrid 1950, vol. II, p. 773, nos. 29, 41, reproduced fig. 580;
J.A. Gaya Nuño, La pintura española fuera de España, Madrid 1958, no. 1339;
H. Soehner, "Greco in Spanien, I: Grecos Stilentwicklung in Spanien," in Münchner Jahrbuch der Bildenden Kunst, VII, 1957, pp. 158, 160, 164, 167;
H.E. Wethey, El Greco and His School, Princeton 1962, vol. I, reproduced fig. 169, vol. II, no. 42 (as El Greco and an assistant, ca. 1600-1605);
G. Manzini and T. Frati, L’Opera completa del Greco, Milan 1969, no. 126a, reproduced (as El Greco and an assistant, ca. 1600-1605);
J. Gudiol, El Greco 1541-1614, Barcelona 1971, pp. 188, 197, no. 144, reproduced fig. 174 (as El Greco, ca. 1597-1603);
The Toledo Museum of Art, European Paintings, Toledo 1976, pp. 71, 72, reproduced plate 54 (as El Greco, ca. 1600);
J.D. Morse, Old Master Paintings in North America, New York 1979, p. 154;
J.G. Ravin, "Art and Medicine: Did El Greco have astigmatism?," in Bulletin, The Academy of Medicine of Toledo and Lucas County, vol. 71, no. 3, May-June, 1980, pp. 18-19, reproduced;
J. Gudiol, The Complete Paintings of El Greco, New York 1983, pp. 188, 197, reproduced fig. 174;
J.F. Mills, Collecting now: know your picture, London 1984, reproduced p. xxxviii;
"Exhibitions: Reopening of the Gallery of European and American Art," in The News, Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Missouri-Columbia, no. 6, Fall 1986, reproduced.
Marqués de Corvera;
F. Ortiz de Piñedo, Madrid;
Stanislas Baron, Paris;
With Durand-Ruel, Paris;
Ralph M. Coe, Cleveland, 1928-1951;
Toledo Museum of Art (Acc. no. 51.362).