Duncan Grant and El Greco
CHA/P/2612 Recto. Duncan Grant, drawing, study of El Greco’s Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara (c.1600) Photograph © The Charleston Trust.
The box of loose pages that we are currently working through in the Angelica Garnett Gift has been transporting us to warmer climes over the past few weeks. Last week we stepped inside Grant’s heady Moroccan landscapes, capturing the knotted kaleidoscope of exotic foliage under the vibrant Tangiers sun. This week we follow Grant’s influences to Spain and to the work of El Greco. We have unearthed a Grant study of El Greco’s Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara (c.1600) and thus turn towards the artistic legacy of the continent and the influence of El Greco’s Mannerist style in the Late Renaissance on Grant’s and his contemporaries’ works.
Domenikos Theotokopoulos is better known as “El Greco”, meaning “The Greek”. He was born in 1541 on the island of Crete, then owned by Venice, and travelled to Venice itself to study art under Titian. Here he was influenced by Tintoretto and Bassando before moving on to Rome to study Michelangelo and Raphael. He was also greatly influenced by Byzantine art, having grown up in Crete, and his style can be referred to as Post-Byzantine. By 1577 El Greco had moved to Spain where he would stay for the rest of his life. Duncan Grant’s work has similar influences in both the Renaissance Masters and the Byzantine style.
Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara by El Greco, c.1600. Photograph © The MET.
El Greco’s Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara is noted for its original style, much discussed sitter, and relationship to the history of Spain. It is now widely accepted that the sitter is Niño de Guevara and not his successor to the position of Inquisitor General, Cardinal Bernardo de Sandoval y Rojas (1546–1618). The portrait shows Niño de Guevara as a man of power who held an important role in the Spanish Inquisition. Walter Liedke has noted that
“The portrait was probably painted in March and April 1600, when the cardinal (aged about 59) was in Toledo for several weeks. His visit began as part of the king and queen’s formal entry into the city on March 2; a few days later an auto-da-fé was held at which Philip III vowed to protect the Holy Office and forty-six alleged transgressors were assigned unfortunate fates.”
On his visit to Spain in 1936 Duncan Grant made his way via bus from Malaga via Algeciras to Cadiz where he saw an El Greco painting before moving on to Murillo. He spent Easter here. Frances Spalding sets the scene:
“When Holy Week began, its streets filled with elaborate processions in which enormous Madonnas with glass tears and scarlet and gold robes were carried slowly through town accompanied by mournful trumpet music. On Easter Sunday 1936 he stood outside the cathedral and watched as five bishops, all in mitres, said mass while young men holding candles lined the altar steps.”
Grant is quoted saying “[t]hey really were a magnificent sight, rather like a Greco – it would be fun to paint them”. He is clearly inspired both by the traditions of the Catholic Church and the artistic heritage of Spain. However, the painting that Grant had seen in Cadiz, just weeks before the motifs of El Greco came to life before his eyes on Murillo’s cathedral steps, cannot have been Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara as the painting was, by this time, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The painting was sold some time between 1901-1904 to Durand-Ruel, the famous Impressionist art dealer, who then sold it to the Havemeyers in New York. The painting was bequest from the family to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1929. It is possible that Grant could have seen it whilst it was with Durand-Ruel as he did visit him on occasion but perhaps it is more likely that this study was made from a reproduction image, perhaps inspired by his visit to Spain in the 1930s.
Grant’s study is a gestural piece which eliminates background detail to focus on the sitter. It is a dynamic work which captures the posture and presence of the Cardinal in bold graphite, amplifying the chiaroscuro of the piece. Indeed, El Greco’s positioning and distortion of bodies was an inspiration for Cubist artists, working at the same time as Grant. El Greco’s works were cited as an inspiration by various Modern artists from Picasso to Pollock. Roger Fry in particular noted how Cezanne had been inspired by El Greco’s “great discovery of the permeation of every part of the design with a uniform and continuous plastic theme”. Indeed, perhaps this is another aspect of what interested Grant about the artist. His study does not further distort the figure into a Cubist or Abstract style but is a true exercise in copying, perhaps in order to better understand El Greco’s compositional practice.