View of Toledo by El Greco

View of Toledo by El Greco: An Analysis

During the Renaissance, paintings were a lot like photographs. Artists would depict exactly what they saw around them realistically and elegantly. In El Greco’s work, we see a clear shift from realism to mannerism. Greco favored the depiction of symbolism and emotions through his work over the mere replication of reality. Greco’s late 16th-century painting,  “View of Toledo” reflects his ingenuity and mastery of storytelling. 

About the Artist

Self Portrait of El Greco
Presumed self-portrait, or portrait of an anonymous man (1595-1600) by El Greco. Public Domain

Doménikos Theotokópoulos was born in Greece and received most of his art training in Venice. For almost all his training period he studied the Byzantine icon art style.

During the 1560s Greco got an opportunity to study art under the famous Italian painter Titian. Greco moved to Spain to find work as a painter and finally settled in the city of Toledo where he spent the rest of his life. His friends and colleagues in Spain gave him the title “El Greco” meaning “the Greek”.

He made a successful career based on religious paintings. Some of his most important works include “The disrobing of Christ”, “The Burial of the Count of Orgaz”, and “The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice”.

Where is it today?

“View of Toledo” (original: Vistas de Toledo) is one of the smallest remaining paintings by El Greco with a height of 48 cm and a width of 43 cm. The painting is presently located at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

The exact year in which the painting was created was not documented. However, art historians have found important similarities between the View of Toledo and other early 15th-century paintings by Greco. 

The striking sky over Toledo mimics the skies in his painting Saint Joseph and the Christ Child (1640). Most researchers contend that View of Toledo was the very first painting that featured El Greco’s characteristic skyscape and has been created between 1595-1600. 

The Subject of the Painting

View of Toledo by El Greco
View of Toledo (1596-1600) by El Greco. Public Domain

As the title suggests, the painting features the city of Toledo placed on an elevated hill. Even though in reality the city is not situated on a hill, Greco probably made an attempt to put Toledo on a metaphorical pedestal, highlighting its glory. 

The painting is a rough depiction of the eastern section of Toledo from the north under a dramatic skyscape. Being placed on the summit, the city is closer to the divine light emerging from the sky.

The beautiful buildings in the painting are more or less identifiable. These include important structures that have been embellished by Greco’s work, such as the Royal Alcázar of Seville and the Castle of San Servando. In this way “View of Toledo” almost seems like Greco’s appreciation for his own work.

The Art Style 

The art style in “View of Toledo” is starkly different from the renaissance’s dramatic realism. While the painting involves attention to detail, the brushwork is still loose and blunt. 

A strong artificiality and dramatism overpower the realism in this painting making it more manneristic in nature. The presence of robust emotions also gives this work some features of expressionism. 

His strokes are also very rapid, almost as if Greco is trying to paint as fast as he can so that he doesn’t forget the scene. The artificial yet sophisticated beauty of the sky is extremely captivating. Through a supernatural vision of nature, El Greco successfully captures the soul of the city on canvas. 

The surreal, divine thunderstorm is reminiscent of Giorgio’s painting titled “The Tempest” (1506-1508).  El Greco’s work highly influenced the expressionist movement of the 19th century. Prominent similarities may be seen between “View of Toledo” and “Starry Night” (1889) by Vincent Van Gogh. 

The Tempest Painting
The Tempest (1506-1508) by Giorgione. Public Domain

Colors and Analysis

Colors

The color palette is composed of earthy pigments such as green, blue, grey, white, and black. Greco plays with a striking contrast between the landscape and the skyscape. 

The dark, gloomy greys are in direct contrast with the pure white of the buildings and the vibrant green trees. The black pigment in the sky has been likened to the shadow of our sins. White thunder acts as a hand of God and closest to his hand are the white cathedrals on the ground. 

El Greco paints a depressing yet exciting picture of the relationship between man and God highlighting its tragic grandeur. The colors are suggestive of a provocative presence of the almighty and mysticism.

Analysis

Considering the presence of holy structures under a divine light, “View of Toledo” is also a religious painting. The power of nature, holy buildings, and the otherworldly lighting make the painting almost poetic.

The fact that the placement of buildings has been tweaked a little shows that documentation of the landscape wasn’t Greco’s goal. Through this rearrangement, El Greco conveys deeper cerebral emotions that he attaches to his philosophy of life. 

The View and Plan of Toledo painting
The View and Plan of Toledo (1610-1614) By El Greco. Public Domain.

The grey-blue clouds and their blindingly bright silver lining provide an immersive experience of the thunderstorm. We see the same skyscape in other more apparently religious works by El Greco such as “the view and plan of Toledo” and “Christ on the Cross”. The artist thus touches upon the secrets of humanity’s connection with God.

From within this darkness emerges dazzling white light or divine light, subtly illuminating the holy buildings of the city. The gloomy weather brings with it a sense of impending doom. Greco through the View of Toledo gives us a view of humanity. The depressing picture of humanity’s future hits as hard as the storm which is about to overcome the city. 

Toledo is in the midst of a conflict, and it seems as though God is punishing the city. It also reminds us that finding one’s place in the world is a risky endeavor. The environment however transcends this theological interpretation. It captures the inner conflict that every person experiences at least once in their lives.

Conclusion

El Greco’s work reflects that he was both a painter and a storyteller. His painting begins with the experience of reality and gradually moves toward a more subjective dramatization of this experience. He not only influenced the expressionists, but his influence also spreads beyond the 19th century and greatly shapes modern art. 

Frequently Asked Questions

What characterizes El Greco’s painting View of Toledo?

View of Toledo features El Greco’s innovative manneristic and expressionistic art styles. The artist has made an attempt to present an emotional narrative, not just about the city of Toledo but the future of the human race as a whole. 

The most striking feature of the painting is a mesmerizing yet sinister skyscape. An imminent thunderstorm stirs amidst the clouds subtly illuminating the city. 

What does View of Toledo symbolize?

The view of Toledo symbolizes the presence of a force beyond us, that is all-powerful. It reminds us of the dangers and risks in the world while at the same time hinting toward a connection between man and the divine. 

Why is Toledo at the very top of the hill in the painting?

Even though in reality the city is not situated on a hill, Greco probably made an attempt to put Toledo on a metaphorical pedestal, highlighting its glory. Its placement on the hill also puts it closer to the sky, which is closer to heaven. 

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