Toledo to Toledo : Notes on El Greco and Commerce
Oct. 1 is the birthday of an artist whose paintings, whether gorgeous or so-so, have traveled across nations with the drift of fortunes.
Doménikos Theotokópoulos (1541–1614) was an artist with an eye for beauty and a knack for business.
A native of Crete, the painter who would become known as El Greco began painting Byzantine icons. He spent time in Venice and Rome but left Italy in search of better fortunes in Spain. That nation was then flush from the stream of silver it was extracting from its American colonies. Theotokópoulos hoped to become a favorite of Philip II, an ambition that didn’t pan out for him.
But El Greco — the Greek in Spanish — found a home in the medieval town of Toledo, notes Michael Kimmelman in a 2003 article in the New York Times. (There’s a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography with details on this article and other materials used in my research on El Greco.)
“He lived extravagantly in Toledo, beyond his means, an intellectual and a tenacious businessman who fought hard for the right to charge what he wanted and expected for his pictures, at a time when artists in Spain labored under a medieval system of patronage,” Kimmelman wrote.
Practical and entrepreneurial, El Greco set up an operation that churned out paintings that suited the tastes of the wealthy patrons on his time. There’s long been dispute about exactly how many paintings he produced. His son and perhaps other students may have done some of the work attributed to the master.
To me, it always seems somehow fitting to see how American fortunes built on the same kind of scrappy instincts brought El Greco’s paintings to the New World.
The famous portrait of Toledo seen below is part of the Met’s H. O. Havemeyer Collection, named for the Mrs. H.O. (Louisine) Havemeyer. She was a noted art collector and suffragette. Her husband founded American Sugar Refining Company.
The Met has several other works by El Greco, including “The Vision of Saint John,” seen below.
In looking at this painting, I agree with what New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl said about El Greco’s work in a review of a major 2003 show.
“At the show, I found myself alternately cheering and cringing, inwardly, like the fan of a talented but goof-prone sports team,” Schjeldahl wrote.
In this painting, I’d say the top part of the main figure is captivating, with the sweep of his arm, the intense look in his eyes. He shows the best of El Greco.
But to me at least, the gold and green drapery looks like a wrinkled banner done in some high school’s signature colors. And there are all together too many cherubs floating around.
The Met acquired this painting through its Rogers Fund, named for donor Jacob S. Rogers, the notoriously frugal president of New Jersey-based Rogers Locomotive Works.
Another American, businessman Samuel Kress built a fortune with his chain of five-and-ten-cent stores. That allowed him to purchase El Greco’s Laocoön, shown below.
This is a depiction of the story of a priest who warned his countrymen not to accept the wooden horse left outside Troy by the Greeks.
Laocoön hurled a spear at the horse, intending to show it was empty. That angered the goddess Athena, for one of her pet mortals Odysseus had devised the ruse of the wooden horse. She thus send serpents to destroy Laocoön. Seems a little unfair. How could Laocoön have known the wooden horse was sacred to Athena? But, as Robert Fagles says in his translation of “The Odyssey,” “the gods are always keen to see their rules obeyed.”
“Laocoön” is a bit of a detour for El Greco. He focused more on religious subjects, as seen in the magnificent painting below.
El Greco retuned to this theme a few times, but this painting of “The Agony in the Garden” is a standout.
El Greco sets the mood of this evening with the moon peaking out from the clouds. He gives us a pensive Christ contemplating his fate.
This painting moved out of Spain around 1919, according to a history supplied to me by the Toledo Museum of Art. The Durlacher Brothers, a firm of prominent art dealers with branches in New York and London, acquired the painting. The painting then passed to Arthur Sachs of New York, who held it from 1928 to 1946, according to the note from the museum.
This Arthur Sachs seems to be the noted art collector and one-time Goldman Sachs partner. Sachs lent this painting to a 1928 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In a neat twist, that show also included works by the painter Francisco Goya on loan from the Toledo Museum of Art.
Edward Libbey (1854 — 1925) was a businessman with an eye for beauty and a knack for collecting.
So it seems somehow fitting that Libbey created the American home for El Greco’s “Agony in the Garden.”
In 1888, Libbey had moved his family glass business from his native New England to Toledo. Ohio had abundant natural gas, large deposits of high quality sand and a network of railroad and steamship lines, “making it an ideal location,” according to a history on the company’s website.
“Libbey and Toledo were a match made in heaven and thus the glass city was born.”
Libbey and his wife in 1901 founded the Toledo Museum of Art. In speaking in 1912 on this project, Libbey said: “To the Memory of the past, to an understanding of the needs and conditions of the present, and to the future of increasing understanding.”
About two decades after Libbey’s death in 1925, his museum acquired El Greco’s “The Agony in the Garden.” Created during Spain’s Golden Age, the painting would find a new home in a bustling mid20th century industrial America, a journey from Toledo to Toledo.
For more information on materials used in researching this essay, see my bibliography on European artists.
I hope someday to write a mystery with this title, “Toledo to Toledo,” in which the suspect will be an historian working on a book, also titled “Toledo to Toledo,” tracing the path of El Greco’s major works to museums around the world. Let me know if you would be interested in being a beta reader for that or want to suggest paintings I should have that character research.