El Greco was born with the name Domenikos Theotokopoulos. He got the nickname, 'El Greco', much later in life from the Spaniards. However, he was proud of his Cretan origin and always signed his name in Grecian letters on his paintings.
El Greco was born in 1541, in Candia, Crete, and lived there until his mid-twenties, but not much is known about his youth or where he trained to be an artist. His early art career involved producing religious icons, and he was so good that he was referred to as 'Master Painter' in an official document of the time.
One of his works, 'Dormition of the Virgin', has survived at the Church of the Koimesis tis Theotokou in Syros. At the time, Crete was part of the Venetian Republic and as Venice offered more opportunities than that were available in Candia, El Greco moved there, like many of his compatriots.
Art Studies in Venice
On his arrival in Venice, El Greco worked at producing religious icons for a while. But, he was not content to restrict himself to this. The exciting culture and cosmopolitan atmosphere of sea-faring Venice filled him with a strong urge to learn more.
In the two years that he lived in the city, he saw and studied the works of the leading Venetian painters like Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto. He also worked for a while in Titian's workshop.
After leaving Venice, El Greco went to Rome. It was 1570, and Michelangelo had died only six years earlier. Pope Pius V was thinking of desecrating Michelangelo's memory by having someone paint loincloths on the nude figures of the 'Last Judgment'.
There is a story about El Greco being offered this undertaking and his offering to paint over the frescoes entirely instead. The Pope then left him out of the project.
In Rome, El Greco stayed with Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, whom he had met through his friend, Giulio Clovio, at the Palazzo Farnese. Here, he came into daily contact with all the leading intellectuals of the city.
One of the excellent paintings of the Roman Period is 'Portrait of Giulio Clovio'. Clovio was a well-regarded Croatian painter of miniatures. El Greco painted him with a book of miniatures, seated by a window that opens out on a stormy landscape.
El Greco's paintings brought him to the attention of Diego de Castilla, Dean of Canons at Toledo Cathedral, and the Dean invited him to come and work in Toledo.
After six years in Rome, El Greco went to the Spanish city of Toledo in 1577. This had been the capital of Spain some dozen years before his arrival, and was still the bastion of the powerful Spanish Church and a very important business center.
It was prosperous, culturally-refined, and intellectually stimulating. El Greco liked it so much he decided to stay a bit, then got into a relationship, had a son, and remained in Toledo for the rest of his life.
El Greco had already made a name for himself as an artist in Rome, and with his intelligence and talent he became even more popular in Toledo.
Soon after his arrival he'd been entrusted with the challenging task of creating an altarpiece 'The Assumption of the Virgin' for the Church of Santo Domingo El Antiguo, and soon afterwards 'The Despoiling of Christ' for the Toledo Cathedral.
Many more such commissions followed. Although he never managed to gain the patronage of the Spanish Royalty, he was much sought after by the Spanish aristocracy as a portrait painter. He was also in demand in society as a learned and philosophical man.
There are stories of his three-membered family with an entourage of six or seven students and assistants, living more lavishly than they could really afford in a 24-roomed palace, with hired musicians at every meal.
El Greco painted many masterpieces in Toledo. Aside from the 'Storm Over Toledo' and many beautiful realistic portraits like 'Lady in a Fur Wrap', which is supposed to be of his partner Jeronima de las Cuevas, his noteworthy works include 'The Martyrdom of St. Maurice', 'St. Peter in Tears', 'The Burial of Count Orgaz', and 'Laocoon'.
While his earlier works show the imprint of the Renaissance and Mannerist schools, his Toledo paintings are in entirely his own distinct style. This mostly constituted of vivid colors and strangely elongated forms quivering dramatically with an intense, tormented spirituality.
El Greco's last years were not very good. He lost his fortune, was involved in frequent litigations with his patrons regarding payments for work done, and was in dire financial troubles and lingering ill-health.
He died on 7 April 1614, and was initially buried in the Church of Santo Domingo El Antiguo. As his family did not have enough money, his son Jorge Manuel―also a painter―was asked to submit paintings by way of payment.
However, the Church couldn't get Jorge to paint, so they exhumed his father's body and had it reburied in the San Torcuato monastery. The monastery and all traces of El Greco were later destroyed. The Church has since put up a commemorative marker in his memory.