Rachel Cohen

Toledo Company

Toledo Company

El Greco, Portrait of Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino, 1609, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, detail photo Rachel Cohen.

El Greco lived a life of some difficulty. He left Greece for Venice, Venice for Rome, Rome for Spain. These travels were arduous. The ways he wanted to paint were unlike any other painter. A manner that people loved and people hated and people who had commissioned his works sometimes refused to pay for. Quite often refused to pay for. He came to rest in Toledo, but it was an uneasy rest.

For the last few months in Chicago, there has been a show called El Greco: Ambition and Defiance. A wonderful show that encountered setbacks. The curator, Rebecca Long, began work for it in 2016. Last fall, when it was in Paris, there was a transportation strike. When it first opened in Chicago last March, it closed after six days because of the coronavirus. The exhibition was held over and the museum reopened in the summer, but I did not go until we had visited family and friends we were being extra-careful for. So I began in September.

The first day I went back to the museum, I went to this show, which I had been looking forward to for more than a year. Most of the rooms were devoted to the religious paintings with their immense vertical reach, but there was a room I didn’t expect, in which portraits I had loved separately – at the MFA in Boston, at the Louvre, in an El Greco exhibition many years ago – of men one by one, in black clothes, or in priests’ robes, were all assembled.

A room of friends. Companions of the decades while Doménikos Theotokópoulos (because I imagine they didn’t only call him The Greek, as we do) lived in Toledo and waged his lawsuits with commissioners and filled the churches of Toledo with masterpieces. They were scholars, ardent men.

A scholar of Greek, Antonio de Covarrubias y Leyva

Portrait of Antonio de Covarrubias y Leyva, about 1600, Louvre Museum.

A man of convictions and considerations, the scholar Dr. Francisco de Pisa

Portrait of Dr. Francisco de Pisa, c. 1610-14, Kimbell Art Museum.

A young man, a priest and poet, Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino.

Portrait of Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino, 1609, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Who, after seeing this painting of himself wrote a poem:

... so lifelike, my very soul is torn

For with its nine and twenty years of life

Between your hand and God's, it stands perplexed

Not knowing in which body it should dwell

Some of the portraits in the room were from other times and places. This historical painting of King Louis IX of France and his page add further dimensions

Saint Louis, King of France, and a Page, 1590, Louvre Museum.

This one of the Italian sculptor Pompeo Leoni seems to belong in the Toledo company -- he too is a portraitist.

Portrait of a Sculptor (Pompeo Leoni) 1577 / 80, Private Collection.

They gathered in houses together, in the stony buildings of Toledo.

What a beautiful idea to put the place at the center of the gathering in the room at the museum. Their spirits have not been together in a long while. The priest-poet is in Boston, the upright man of consideration in Fort Worth, the scholar of Greek in Paris.

"Between your hand and God's, it stands perplexed." Hands in El Greco are always very active, directional, you follow the lead of the fingers and it makes a route through the painting.

Rebecca Long worked in three dimensions, and the hands of the figures point not only within the paintings but among them.

The curator worked, really, in four dimensions: the sense of time in the room was palpable, redolent.

Time of painting, time of friendship, time of exile, time atop the hill in Toledo, time of death and elongation, momentary time of return.

When people die, we say, what I would give to see them once more.

I don’t know the order of their deaths, but I think these friends would each have thought this about the others – I thought I saw him this morning, just ahead of me on the stony street, how can it be that I will not see the scholar of Greek, the poet-priest, the painter again.

“Not knowing in which body it should dwell."

For a few months in Paris, a few months in Chicago.

Toledo was never easy to get to – a high stone bridge, a long twisting climb up.

Paint, paint, paint

Paint paint paint

El Greco, View of Toledo, ca. 1599-1600, Metropolitan Museum of Art, all detail photos Rachel Cohen.

On Monday, I went to the Art Institute of Chicago for the first time in six months. It was quiet; everyone had a mask. There were people with devices to check you in electronically and you were informed by text when there was enough space in the one exhibition that is drawing any kind of crowd. The atmosphere was reserved, cautious.

But the paintings.

El Greco, St. Louis King of France, and a page, Louvre Museum

El Greco, Fray Hortensio Félix Paravicino, 1609, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The paintings came pouring and leaping off the walls. The paintings were full of news and observations. The paintings had just left the Louvre and the Prado, and had come out of private homes for the first time in decades, had had the chance to be quiet together in their home in Chicago. They were busy conversing with one another. In the photos I took, and I took a great many, they spoke of humanity, struggle.

El Greco, Portrait of Antonio de Covarrubias y Leyva, about 1600, Louvre Museum

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait, 1887, Art Institute of Chicago

And of reflection.

El Greco, View of Toledo, ca. 1599-1600, Metropolitan Museum of Art, detail photo Rachel Cohen

Paul Cézanne, The Bay of Marseilles, Seen from L'Estaque, c. 1885, Art Institute of Chicago

Claude Lorrain, View of Delphi With a Procession, 1673, Art Institute of Chicago

Claude Monet, Vétheuil, 1901, Art Institue of Chicago

But mostly they returned to one subject, one of infinite interest and variation:

Paul Cézanne, Still Life, on display at the Art Institute of Chicago but not on their website

paint,

Louise Moillon, Still Life with a Basket of Fruit and a Bunch of Asparagus, 1630, Art Institute of Chicago

Louise Moillon, Still Life with a Basket of Fruit and a Bunch of Asparagus, 1630, Art Institute of Chicago

paint,

El Greco, St. Louis King of France, and a page, Louvre Museum

paint.

Monet, The Water Lily Pond, 1917-1920, Private Collection

Monet, The Water Lily Pond, 1917-1920, Private Collection

Monet, Water Lily Pond, 1917/1919, Art Institute of Chicago

El Greco, View of Toledo, ca. 1599-1600, Metropolitan Museum of Art, detail photo Rachel Cohen.

At the museum, it was delirious and quiet.

Morning Search

Palma Il Giovane St Lawrence Giving the Wealth to the Poor San Giacomo dell039Orio Venice

Palma Il Giovane, St. Lawrence Giving the Wealth to the Poor, San Giacomo dell'Orio, Venice

This morning, the urge to draft. Paged through some photos from the summer. A blurred and distorted picture, from inside a church in Venice.

Had I seen this painting? By the other photos, it must have been from San Giacomo dell’Orio, across from the apartment where we stayed. But I could not recall it. So beautiful, though, and familiar as if through other paintings. The colors and tones like Veronese, mauves and golds. I had taken a picture of the diagram the church provides of its riches. There were two Veroneses, able to find pictures on-line, no, not those.

I went to the church several times, like a small museum, so close, took S with me once. I went especially for the Lotto, which I loved and was thinking about. But this other painting, so striking to me now, but I can’t remember why I noticed it.

The child with its hand out, pointing, indicating. Another child I have looked at often, in El Greco’s The Burial of the Count Orgaz. And the face of the young man in richly embroidered robe.

Consulting the church card again, I see there are a great many Palma il Giovanes, and I try searching that way. It comes up. St. Lawrence Giving the Wealth to the Poor.

Can see so much of what El Greco admired – seems he must have seen this painting, completed between 1581 and 1582. But no, he arrived in Spain in 1577, so it is just a shared development, both Palma Il Giovane and El Greco using what they had learned from Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese. But the verticality. The sense of those higher up gesturing downward.

The white ruffs around the faces of the children, and their somber attention.