Saint Louis, King of France is depicted standing, armor-plated, and bearing a crown of gold on his head. The bare arms emerge from the steel cuff. With his right hand he holds the hand of justice and the left slightly inclined towards the ground, the royal scepter surmounted by the flower of lily. On the armor is thrown a purple coat carelessly draped. Near the monarch, a young page, the collar decorated with a strawberry lace, wears the helmet of the sovereign.
The author of the portrait of Saint Louis, King of France was called Dominico Theotocopuli. He was nicknamed “El Greco” because of its origin. He was born in the island of Crete, about the year 1548. As a young man, he manifested wonderful dispositions for painting, and he had no other thought but to come to the continent to satisfy his taste. In the sixteenth century, Venice was queen of the seas and made an active trade with the East; its ships visited all the Mediterranean islands and brought echoes of the marvels of the Serenissima. By travelers and merchants, it was known on the islands that Venice flourished an incomparable pleiad of painters, the firsts in the world. The mind of the young Theotocopuli was haunted by these stories. His ardent soul was exalted, and when he set foot on the bank of the Slavonians, he did not think of going any farther, he fixed himself at Venice.
He entered the studio of Titian, at least in accordance with a letter written in Rome by the illuminator Clovio, in 1570, asking Cardinal Farnese to grant accommodation in his palace of Rome “to one young Candiot, a pupil of Titian and a good painter “. Nothing less than this assertion is needed to close the debate; for if we judge from his works in the first manner, we find more certainly the influence of Tintoretto or even of Jacopo da Ponte than that of Titian.
In 1570, he went to Rome to understand the work of the great masters. After five or six years of residence in the papal city, he went to Spain and settled in Toledo. The first of his works, executed in that city, bears the date of 1577. Greco was no longer to leave Spain, which he had definitely adopted as his country.
From the time of his arrival in the peninsula, the art of Greco underwent a transformation of which no other example can be found in history. His manner changes completely. All Italian influence disappears. Henceforth his work no longer recalls Titian or Tintoretto; he is a Spaniard, or, better still, he is Greco, he is himself, that is to say, a painter who is not akin to any other, and who draws his personality from his genius alone.
What distinguishes it is the particular quality of its color a little cold but still harmonious and distinguished. Another characteristic of his talent is his marked predilection for asceticism. He willingly gives his characters stern, elongated, thin, emaciated faces, bodies of anchorites whose bones seem devoid of flesh. To contemplate some of his paintings one experiences a feeling of discomfort which the superior art of the artist does not always succeed in dissipating. But his figures live on an intense, prodigious life. Never has a painter translated with such power the inner flame that comes from the soul and the passionate ecstasies of fervor. However ugly his model may be, he illuminates it with a superhuman clarity which makes him poetic and embellish. In this capacity, he ranks as one of the best religious painters of which the history of art makes mention. Toledo has its most beautiful canvases.
Thanks to this wonderful gift of evocation, he was also a portraitist of the first order and Velazquez is hardly to be placed above him. If he is sometimes inferior to him from the point of view of execution, he equals and sometimes surpasses him by its intense power of penetration, by the incomparable faculty which he possesses of fixing in fire the interior life of his model.
He was called “the painter of souls.” No title could better suit him, no master was more worthy than him to bear it.
M. Maurice Barres, in his fine book on the Greco, writes: “He is gone to be a painter of the soul, and of the most passionate soul: the Spanish in the days of Philip II. He leaves others to represent frightful martyrs, violent gesticulations, all those strange or cruel inventions that appeal to a people of hard manners, but he will keep what lives of pride and fire at the bottom of these excesses. They are always worthy of bringing back minds to the point of honor and religious veneration. And in his work, Greco will show what is peculiar to Spain, the tendency to exalt feelings.”
Greco was not only a great painter, he was still an architect, a sculptor, a writer. In its three aspects, one can not unfortunately judge it today, its sculptures and its writings having disappeared.
Saint Louis, King of France, and a page, of recent acquisition, appears in the Great Gallery, in the span of the Spanish painting.
Height: 2.05 – Width: 1.66 – Half-length figure, natural size.