Portrait of Felix Hortensio Paravicino (c.1605) by El Greco
Interpretation of Mannerist Portrait Painting

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Portrait of Felix Hortensio
By El Greco.
Considered to be one of the
greatest portrait paintings of
the 17th century.

Portrait of Felix Hortensio Paravicino (c.1605)


Explanation of Other Paintings by El Greco


Name: Portrait of Felix Hortensio Paravicino (c.1605)
Artist: El Greco (1541-1614)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Portrait Art
Movement: Mannerist painting
Location: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

For an interpretation of other important pictures from the Mannerist period, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed (1250-1800).

For analysis of paintings by
Mannerist artists like El Greco
(Domenikos Theotokopoulos)
see our educational articles:
Art Evaluation and
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Portrait of Felix Hortensio Paravicino

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos) was born on the Venetian-ruled island of Crete, where he learned icon painting before leaving at the age of about 25 for further training in Venice. Here he absorbed the fundamentals of Venetian painting, studied some of the great Venetian altarpieces, and admired the work of Tintoretto (1518-94) and Jacopo Bassano (1515-92). In 1570 he moved to Rome, where he joined the progressive circle of intellectuals that congregated at the Palazzo Farnese. He also studied the Mannerism of Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Parmigianino (1503-40). Then in 1577 he left Italy for Spain, where he quickly settled in Toledo, the religious capital of Spain and a centre of spiritual mysticism. Within a few years he established a name for himself with works like The Disrobing of Christ (1577, Toledo Cathedral) and The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586-88, Church of Santo Tome, Toledo), both executed in line with recommendations issued by the Council of Trent for the creation of Catholic Counter Reformation art (1560-1700).

Although best known for his intense religious paintings, El Greco was also one of the best portrait artists in Spain, and Portrait of Felix Hortensio Paravicino is considered to be one of his finest works. His sitter, Paravicino (1580-1633), was was a renowned theologian and poet, as well as a Trinitarian friar. Born in Madrid, he was of Italian extraction. By the time of his portrait he was already a figure of great intellectual brilliance, having been appointed Professor of Philosophy at the University of Salamanca. He was also a close friend of the artist, whom he would later commemorate in verse. In 1616 he was appointed a royal preacher to Philip III whose funeral oration he delivered in 1621. Although a well known connoisseur of painting, his fundamentalist religious philosophy led him to call for the burning of all paintings of female nudes - a view which was too extreme even for devout 17th century Spain, since both the King and his senior advisors maintained private galleries of such works.

The Portrait of Felix Hortensio Paravicino is quite disarming in its simplicity and its absence of any formality, either in the pose or the setting. The friar is shown seated comfortably on a wooden chair, with his arms on the arm rests. In his left arm he holds two books, one large, one small. One of his fingers is inserted into the small book, to mark a page. There is no projection of physicality by the sitter. His body, including his elongated hands and fingers, appears lifeless. However, his face - set inside, and partly framed by, the white neck of his habit - exudes a certain radiance, although his expression is utterly unfathomable - it has arrogance, disdain and uncertainty, but characterizing the end result is an entirely subjective matter.



El Greco is almost certainly attempting to conjure up a spiritual presence - something which is wholly lacking in his Portrait of a Cardinal (1600, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) - and employs several devices to help him achieve this. First, the composition is dominated completely by Paravicino's face and the spiritual energy or other-worldliness it exudes. Second, the ghostly, shroud-like white of the Friar's tunic endows him with a certain ethereal quality, reinforced by the paleness of his skin and hands. Third, the folds of the friar's habit, the angle of his left arm and the books, all contribute to the creation of an imperceptible rhythm or movement, which further adds to the sense of other-worldliness.

El Greco's great skills are evident in the details as much as in the overall conception. Paravicino's pale but sallow skin is beautifully rendered and contrasts exquisitely with the white neck of his habit. The differing blacks of the chair and the subject's cloak - a hallmark of Spanish painting: see, for instance, works by Velazquez, as well as El Greco's St Dominic in Prayer (1600-2, private collection) - demonstrate the artist's mastery of tonal contrasts. Other beautifully executed details include the highlights on the chair studs and oak chair, as well as the sitter's fingernails.

The portrait is now in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, which acquired the work in 1904 on the advice of John Singer Sargent, for $17,166.

NOTE: Despite the power and technical virtuosity of his paintings, El Greco was largely rejected by the generations of painters who came after his death, because his style was inconsistent with the principles of early Baroque painting (c.1600-50). His work was deemed incomprehensible and had no important followers, except for his son and a few unknown artists. Later Spanish commentators, including Antonio Palomino and Cean Bermudez were particularly hostile. It wasn't until the 1890s that art critics and painters took a fresh look at El Greco and began to fully appreciate his genius.

Explanation of Other Paintings by El Greco

View of Toledo (1595-1600)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple (1609)
Church of San Gines, Madrid.


• For the meaning of other Mannerist portraits, see: Homepage.

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