“Christ Cleansing the Temple” by El Greco (probably before 1570)

By the time of his death in 1614, the artist Doménikos Theotokópoulos had established himself as a master. He was already an icon painter of some renown in Candia (today Heraklion) on his native island of Crete when he left for Venice as a young man to pursue his destiny. There, he likely worked under Titian; from Venice, he traveled on to Rome, then Madrid, and finally Toledo, refining an expressive style that was framed by Mannerism and the Counter-Reformation. In his life, Theotokópoulos made his mark as a painter of the Spanish Renaissance. Yet the artist known as El Greco would not truly inhabit his name for centuries.

We have Picasso to thank for that, in part. By the 18th century, El Greco’s expressionistic style had become unfashionable; by the 19th century, he was all but forgotten. Picasso came to know El Greco’s painting through the Basque portrait artist Ignacio Zuloaga, who was invested in El Greco’s revival; it was in Zuloaga’s Paris studio that Picasso discovered “The Vision of St. John”—a partially destroyed painting from circa 1610 that would have an enormous compositional influence on Picasso’s 1907 masterpiece, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.”

Four hundred years after El Greco’s death, the National Gallery of Art is mounting an exhibition of his works gathered from museums in the D.C. area. Only El Greco fits so comfortably in the Byzantine collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss at Dumbarton Oaks, the European collection of Chester Dale at the NGA, and the modern collection of Duncan Phillips. This mini-exhibit is as much a celebration of El Greco’s modern legacy as a recognition of his enduring value and historical contributions.

That apocalyptic El Greco painting Picasso loved, “The Vision of St. John,” isn’t on view in D.C. It’s part of the collection at the Met, which is co-hosting a quadricentenary show of its own with the Hispanic Society of America in New York. (El Greco 2014—there’s a festival website and everything—has been taking shape all year in Spain, particularly in Toledo, where more than 100 of his paintings have been assembled, some from the NGA.) Still, the qualities that drew Picasso and other modern artists to the Old Master are evident among the 11 paintings here in D.C.

All but one of the paintings on view come from El Greco’s mature period, following his migration to Spain in the late 1570s. The exception is “Christ Cleansing the Temple,” from the NGA’s collection. Painted before 1570, during the artist’s time in Venice, it finds him laboring with established Renaissance notions of composition and perspective. (Not altogether convincingly: The architecture is awkward, and the painting is far too busy.) In Italy, El Greco struggled mightily under the long shadows cast by Raphael and especially Michelangelo. Once, he asked Pope Pius V to let him paint over the Sistine Chapel. (That was, unsurprisingly, the end of his tenure in Rome.)

A touch of professional envy didn’t prevent El Greco from adopting the prevailing notion of the heroic form set forth by Michaelangelo. The Mannerist painters Tintoretto and Parmigianino were also touchstones for El Greco. He brought the elongated, non-naturalistic figurative tendencies of Italian Mannerism to Spain, as evidenced by “Saint Martin and the Beggar” (1597–1599, from the NGA) and the unfinished “Saint Jerome” (1610–1614, from the NGA). In these late works, his advances on Mannerism look, at times, modern, as in the almost surreal metaphysical space rendered in “Saint Francis Receiving the Stigmata” (1585–1590, from Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum).

In Spain, El Greco built a thriving workshop for Counter-Reformation painting—albeit one that was not embraced by the crown in Madrid. While “The Repentant St. Peter” (1600–1605, from the Phillips) depicts themes of penitence typical for the Catholic Church in that day, the staggering painting “Laocoön” (1610–1614, from the NGA) may reveal how El Greco’s politics diverged from official dogma. Drawn from Virgil’s Aeneid, the painting shows the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons wrestling with the snakes set upon them by the Greek goddess Minerva. Laocoön died trying to warn his compatriots in Troy about the Trojan horse, and we know how that worked out. But in this work, El Greco’s sole surviving mythological painting, the town depicted is Toledo, not the historical Troy. Perhaps the looming threat was the Inquisition.

“The Visitation” (1610–1614), a small standout when on view with the Byzantine and Pre-Columbian works in Georgetown’s Dumbarton Oaks museum, mirrors the illusionistic space and structural forms that appear to have enraptured Picasso. “The Visitation” shows Mary, pregnant with Christ, at the door of the house of her cousin Elizabeth, who was herself pregnant with John the Baptist. The painting is concerned chiefly with the deep blue garments worn by the women; the saintly mothers are barely shown. Elizabeth, identifiable here by the traditional red showing beneath her cloak, is framed by an unlikely light—one that is nearly as substantial as their sculptural gowns. El Greco comes tantalizingly close to weaving form and space seamlessly.

Here, it’s possible to detect the strategies that would later be formalized by Cézanne, Picasso, and Matisse. Yet the study of El Greco also leads researchers backward through the years, toward the Byzantine modes of production on Crete. Alas, the artist’s icons are not represented in this display. Would that they were: El Greco can read like a time traveler in art history. It would take a fuller presentation to see exactly how far he went, and how he got there.

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