From exotic genius to precursor of modernity: El Greco in The Burlington Magazine (1903-1920)

1913_10 859440In the first two decades of the twentieth century The Burlington Magazine contributed to a definite shift in the criticism of El Greco in Britain: from a biographic, almost novelistic approach into documentary rigour and formal analysis.

The first significant mention of El Greco in the Burlington appeared in February 1908 when the aristocratic writer and collector Herbert Cook discussed the artistic work of Pacheco and Velazquez and compared them both to El Greco, whom he mistakenly believed to be half-Italian and half-Spanish, and whom he described as a ‘strange being.’[i] That El Greco was somehow still considered a curiosity, unworthy of full critical attention is also attested by the fact that Manuel Bartolomé Cossío’s monograph, now considered crucial, was only marked in the Burlington by two lines in the August 1908 list of Recent Art Publications.[ii]

The importance of Cossío’s work was fully acknowledged only four years later, when a book about the life of El Greco by a student of Cossío, San Román y Fernández, was published.[iii] ‘S. B. P.’, an author as yet unidentified, wrote a full review of Fernández’s text in form of a short notice in which he recounted the discovery of eighty-eight new archival documents regarding the artist.[iv] S. B. P. was concerned primarily with attributions based on documentary evidence but he also related colourful personal aspects of El Greco’s life.[v]

S. B. P. noticed the inventory of El Greco’s goods written out by Jorge Manuel five days after his father’s death, a document that revealed El Greco’s wide reading, but avoided any further discussion. S. B. P instead concluded referring to romantic genius and exoticism: ‘El Greco’s genius is eminently personal and has by this time become exotic, having little to do with municipal bands, dozing workmen, or even children’s games.’[vi]

Critical and commercial interest for El Greco’s work had been rapidly growing in Spain and elsewhere. In 1902 the Prado museum had organised the first exhibition dedicated to El Greco and soon after a few American art museums had begun to collect his work.[vii] In 1904 the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, following the recommendation of John Singer Sargent, bought the Portrait of Fray Hortensio Felix Paravicino for $17,166. In 1905 the Metropolitan Museum of New York acquired a Nativity, now titled Adoration of the Shepherds, on the advice by Roger Fry.[viii] In 1906, the Art Institute of Chicago bought the Assumption of the Virgin for $40,000 against the opinion of its Director, William M. R. French.[ix]

There had been a significant growth in literature too: Cossío’s 1908 monograph was followed in Europe by Julius Meier-Graefe’s ‘travelogue’ Spanisches Reise [Spanish Journey] in which he famously praised El Greco as a foreshadower of modernity; [x] by August L. Mayer’s 1911 catalogue raisonné[xi] and finally by Maurice Barres, Greco: ou, le secret de Tolède, published in 1912.[xii]

Prices reflected this growth in interest: if in 1901 Louisine Havermayer had been able to buy Cardinal Guevara in Spectacles and View of Toledo (New York, Metropolitan Museum) in Spain for £2,880 each, in 1912 Henry Clay Frick purchased the Man in Armour from Knoedler for £31,000.[xiv] The latter was quite an exceptional case, nevertheless the cost of works by El Greco rose steadily during the 1910s.

This rise was noted by the former editor of The Burlington Magazine Robert Dell, then its representative from Paris and an art dealer, who in July 1913 described the sale of the Marczell de Nemes collection, which contained twelve works by El Greco.[xv] In addition, Dell remarked on the physical condition of the paintings; being ‘not all of the finest quality nor in first-rate condition or being ‘over-restored.’[xvi] Nevertheless, Dell noted, the price of works by El Greco could not be considered low anymore.[xvii]

A new critical appreciation reached Britain in the form of the writings of the Bloomsbury group and the Burlington, then co-edited by Roger Fry with Lionel Cust and More Adey, was instrumental in this process. In 1910 Fry translated for the readers of the Burlington and for the ‘English speaking public’ the appreciation of Cézanne by Maurice Denis, published three years earlier in Paris (L’ Occitane, September, 1907), in which Denis connected the painted forms of Cézanne with that of El Greco; and thus an association El Greco with modernism.[xiii]

In January 1913 in his Burlington essay ‘Post-Impressionism and Aesthetics’, Clive Bell included El Greco within those painters of genius (such as Giotto, Poussin, Claude Lorrain, Cezanne, and Cotman) who ‘wrestled with the coils of convention and created significant form.’[xviii] In October of the same year Fry admired, like Meier-Graefe and Denis, El Greco, a ‘long neglected genius’ who displayed ‘singular qualities’, as forerunner of modernity and abstraction.[xix]

Fry, however, differed from other writers as he maintained a historicistic approach and interpreted El Greco as product of the Spanish seventeenth century mystical tradition as well as seeing him as a precursor of modernity.

El Greco was represented with other Spanish artists at the successful wartime charitable exhibition organised at the Grafton Galleries between October 1913 and January 1914, to which works were lent by dealers, collectors and museums alike.[xx] There were, however, very few of his paintings in permanent British collections. Fry therefore commented Lionel Harris’s Spanish Art Gallery where four ‘remarkable’ works by El Greco (the Crucifixion, a version of the Penitence of Saint Peter, Saint Thomas and Christ taking leave of His Mother) were currently for sale.[xxi]  The Spanish Art Gallery, which opened in Conduit Street in London as early as 1898, had started modestly but flourished in the course of the 1910, as Harris sold works to American ‘gilded age’ collectors such as Milton Archer Huntington and William Randolph Hearst.[xxii]

British and Irish museum begun to acquire works by El Greco. In May 1915 Robert Clermont Witt wrote in the Burlington about the acquisition of El Greco’s Saint Francis receiving the Stigmata, presented by Hugh Lane to the Dublin Gallery (currently National Gallery of Ireland) from the Conde de Quinto collection; emphasising the painterly qualities of the work; ‘characteristic of the school.’[xxiii] Witt anticipated later critics by inserting El Greco back in the Greek tradition, defining him a ‘Cretan painter with his old Byzantine traditions of mysticism and hierarchic simplicity.’[xxiv]

Romantic recourse to the bizarre, almost intoxicating qualities of El Greco’s painting continued to be written in parallel with formalist readings. In April 1917, the poet Bowyer Nichols, then a trustee of the Wallace Collection, published, a review of Estimates in art (1916), written by Frank Jewett Mather, professor at Princeton University and former editor of the Art in America section of the Burlington. Nichols adopted again the notion of ‘singular genius’ of El Greco, pointing out that Mather was successful in ‘achieving […] a broad coherent view of that singular genius, who shares with Blake a special faculty for leading judgment astray.’[xxv]

In 1920 William George Constable, then a fellow of Saint John’s College at Cambridge as well as a frequent contributor to the Burlington, supported another museum acquisition, the 1919 addition to the National Gallery of The Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane (currently attributed to the Studio of El Greco). George Curzon of Kedleston, Conservative politician and Trustee of the National Gallery, had not been entirely favourable towards this acquisition. Constable, instead, backed it forcefully by referring to the unique formal qualities of El Greco’s painting; placing anew the painter next to Cézanne. [xxvi]

Constable concluded by stating that this picture was such ‘a remarkable achievement, both aesthetically and technically, and in its adjustment of means to an end, that it is likely to have a considerable influence upon British art.’[xxvii]

Constable viewed favourably the public interest that this acquisition aroused, whereas Roger Fry expressed a more cynical opinion in the Athenaeum. Fry believed the public’s main interest lied in the price of a work rather than in the work itself. Nevertheless, Fry had to admit that ‘the price has not been made known, so that it is really about the picture that people get excited.’

And now with the El Greco he [Mr. Holmes] has given the British public an electric shock. People gather in crowds in front of it, they argue and discuss and lose their tempers. This might be intelligible enough if the price were known to be fabulous, but, so far as I am aware, the price has not been made known, so that it is really about the picture that people get excited. [xxviii]

Owen S. Scott, curator of the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle in County Durham, in a letter to the Burlington, felt the need to correct Constable’s notice, namely on his opinion of paintings of El Greco on public exhibition in Great Britain. Scott stressed the fact that Britain did exist beyond London and that in the Bowes museum there was an important work by El Greco. This is The tears of Saint Peter, from the collection of the Conde de Quinto, reluctantly purchased by John Bowes in 1869 for about £8.

El Greco was rapidly becoming a household name and museums wished to emphasise their holdings of his work.[xxix]

Lastly, in 1920 C. J. Holmes reviewed the November 1920-January 1921 ‘Exhibition of Spanish Painting’ at the Royal Academy.[xxx] Holmes, former editor of the Burlington and a moderately successful landscape painter, focused on the formal and structural elements of El Greco’s work. Holmes, who was also a Museum Director (National Portrait Gallery, 1909-1916 and National Gallery, 1916-1924), was attentive to questions of display too, examining the dialogue between artworks in the same room. For instance, he noted the juxtaposition of works by El Greco and Pantoja de la Cruz: ‘Nothing could be further removed from Pantoja’s primitive stiffness than Greco’s highly scientific and passionate extravagance.’ [xxxi]

To conclude, in the critique expressed by Burlington writers – from the as yet novelistic descriptions of a ‘half-Italian, half-Spanish master’ by Herbert Cook and ‘genius eminently personal and has by this time become exotic’ by S. B. P to the significant from of Bell and Fry – we can trace the reconsideration of El Greco as a precursor of modern art in parallel with developments in French, Spanish and German historiography. This shift in critique also took into account historical connections with the Spanish tradition as well as biographical links with his Greek early years and was accompanied by notes on the circulation, museum acquisitions and market for his works. Even through such a brief critical survey in the changing image of an artist, current readers are confronted with a distinct shift in art historical approaches. From the biographic and novelistic to a structured, formal, historicistic and market-based analysis which had just begun to encompass the notion of public, but that still occasionally referred to romantic ideas of isolated and misunderstood genius.

Barbara Pezzini and Ioannis Tzortzakakis, February 2014

NB: This entry is a short abstract from a forthcoming essay by Barbara Pezzini and Ioannis Tzortzakakis  on the critical reception of El Greco in the British periodical press and his impact on modern British painting (1900-1920).


The Crucifixion [with Toledo in the Background], by Domenico Theotocopuli, property of Mr Lionel Harris, the Spanish Art Gallery,  [Burlington’s original caption] Source: Roger Fry (1913) ‘Some Pictures by el Greco’ The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 24, No. 127, Plate 1. (The first painting of El Greco to appear as illustration in the Burlington, currently in the Cincinnati Art Museum.)


[i] Herbert Cook (1908) ‘Pacheco, the Master of Velazquez’ The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 12, No. 59, pp. 299-300.

[ii] Manuel Bartolomé Cossío (1908) El Greco. Madrid: Victoriano Suárez. ‘Cossío (M. B.). El Greco. 2 vols. (8 x 5) Madrid (Suárez), ‘31 pesetas, About 190 plates and photogravure frontispiece.’ ‘Recent Art Publications, Biographical works and monographs,’ The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 13, No. 65 (1908), p. 299.

[iii] Francisco de Borja de San Román y Fernández (1910) El Greco en Toledo; ó, Nuevas investigaciones acerca de la vida y obras de Dominico Theotoćopuli, Madrid: Suárez.

[iv] S. B. P. (1912) ‘New Documents concerning el Greco’ The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 21, No. 112, p. 233.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] [José Villegas y Salvador Viniegra] (1902 )Museo Nacional de Pintura y Escultura, Catálogo ilustrado de la Exposición de las obras de Domenico Theotocopuli llamado el Greco, Madrid : J. Lacoste, Imp. De J. Sastre y C.ª.

[viii] Ellis Waterhouse (1983) ‘Earlier Paintings in the Earlier Years of the Art Institute: The Role of the Private Collectors’ Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 10, pp. 86-87.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Julius Meier-Graefe (1909) Spanische Reise, Berlin. An English translation appeared in 1926 in London and a reprint in New York in the same year. Julius Meier-Graefe, The Spanish Journey, trans. by John Holroyd Reece (1926), London: Jonathan Cape.  / New York: Harcourt & Brace Company.

[xi] August L. Mayer (1911) El Greco: eine Einführung in das Leben und Wirken des Domenico Theotocopuli, genannt El Greco, Munich: Delphin.

[xii] Maurice Barres (1912) Greco ou le Secret de Tolède, Paris : Emile-Paul.

[xiii] Maurice Denis & Roger E Fry (1910) “Cézanne-I” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 16, No. 82, pp. 207-209+212-215+219, and Maurice Denis (1910) “Cézanne-II” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 16, No. 83, pp. 275-277+279-280.

[xiv] Prices from: Gerald Reitlinger (1961) The Economics of Taste: The Rise and Fall of the Picture Market, 1760-1960, New York: Holt, Reinhart and Winston, pp. 333-334.

[xv] ‘École Espagnole, Works 28-39,’ Léon Roger-Miles (pr.) (1913) Collection Marczell de Nemes de Budapest, vol. 1, Paris: Galerie Manzi – Joyant. The auction sale of collection took place at June 17-18, 1913. This collection had been previously exhibited at the Alte Pinakothek, Munich in 1911 and at the Städtische Kunsthalle, Düsseldorf in 1912.

[xvi] R. E. D. (1913) ‘Art in France’ The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 23, No. 124, p. 237.

[xvii] Ibid. p. 238.

[xviii] Clive Bell (1913) ‘Post-Impressionism and Aesthetics’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 22, No. 118, p. 228.

[xix] Roger Fry (1913) ‘Some Pictures by el Greco’ The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 24, No. 127, p. 5.

[xx] See the complete catalogue of the works in: (1913) Illustrated catalogue of the exhibition of Spanish old masters in support of National Gallery funds and for the benefit of the Sociedad de Amigos del Arte Española, Oct. 1913 to Jan. 1914, Grafon Galleries, London. This exhibition was reviewed only with a short comment in the Burlington, [Anon.] (1913), ‘Notes’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 27, No. 146, p. 57.

[xxi]Fry (1913), Op. Cit. p. 3.

[xxii] Suzanne L. Stratton-Pruitt (2011) ‘Lionel Harris, Tomas Harris, the Spanish Art Gallery (London) and North American Collections’ La dispersión de objetos de arte fuera de España en los siglos XIX y XX, edited by Fernando Pérez Mulet, Immaculada Socias Batet, Barcelona, pp. 303-306.

[xxiii] Robert C. Witt (1915) ‘Recent Additions to the Dublin Gallery – I: El Greco, S. Francis Receiving the Stigmata’ The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 27, No. 146, p. 56.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Estimates in Art by Frank Jewett Mather, Review by: B. N. The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs , Vol. 30, No. 169 (Apr., 1917) , p. 157.

[xxvi] W. G. Constable (1920) ‘The New el Greco in the National Gallery’ The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 36, No. 204, p. 142.

[xxvii] Constable (1920) Op. Cit. p. 145.

[xxviii] Roger Fry (1920) ‘El Greco’ Vision and Design, London: Chatto & Windus, p. 134.

[xxix] Owen S. Scott (1920) ‘The New el Greco in the National Gallery’ The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 36, No. 205 p. 203. Scott was referring to The Tears of St. Peter, c.1580-1589 (B.M.642); See The Bowes Museum, Top 25 Fine Art, (accessed 28/01/14).

[xxx] This exhibition in context in Enriqueta Harris and Nigel Glendinning (2011), ‘British and Irish Interest in Hispanic Culture’ Spanish Art in Britain and Ireland, 1750-1920 Studies in Reception in Memory of Enriqueta Harris Frankfort Edited by Nigel Glendinning and Hilary Macartney, Tamesis, Woodbridge, pp. 8-12.

[xxxi] C. J. Holmes (1920) ‘Spanish Painting at Burlington House’ The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, Vol. 37, No. 213, p. 270.

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