The beauty and eccentricity of Piero, a neglected Renaissance artist

The 400th anniversary of the death of the Greek painter Doménikos Theotokópoulos — more commonly known as El Greco — was met with a flurry of exhibitions last year. In late 2014, New York’s Frick Collection and Metropolitan Museum of Art and Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art each showed an exhibit of works by the painter, whose bold style was centuries ahead of its time.

Cat. No. 6 / File Name: 3412-003.jpgPiero di CosimoThe Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot, c. 1489/1490oil on paneloverall: 184.2 x 188.6 cm (72 1/2 x 74 1/4 in.)framed: 235.6 x 250.2 x 12.1 cm (92 3/4 x 98 1/2 x 4 3/4 in.)National Gallery of Art, Washington, Samuel H. Kress Collection

Piero di Cosimo, “The Visitation with St. Nicholas and St. Anthony Abbot” (circa 1489-90). Oil on panel. National Gallery of Art, D.C., Samuel H. Kress Collection.

So celebrated has El Greco become that it’s easy to forget how much his star has risen since the late 19th century, when he was much lesser known. “He was discovered by collectors who were interested in modern art, because he seemed so out of kilter with the times, so individual and so modern,” said Richard Townsend, director of the Museum of Biblical Art in New York and an early modern European art specialist.

In the rediscovery of El Greco about a century ago, Townsend sees a parallel to the painter’s Italian predecessor Piero di Cosimo (1462-1521). The latter is the subject of the National Gallery of Art’s exhibit “Piero di Cosimo: The Poetry of Painting in Renaissance Florence,” open through May 3. It is being hailed as the artist’s first retrospective.

“Piero presents an interesting case study of an artist who was very well-respected in his day, or else he wouldn’t have had pupils like Fra Bartolomeo and Andrea del Sarto,” Townsend said. “But he has lost the attention, because of this crowded field: from Ghirlandaio and Verrocchio to Lippi and Botticelli. Then you have Leonardo and Raphael. That’s a lot of competition.”

You can read my full my National Catholic Reporter article, “The beauty and eccentricity of Piero, a neglected Renaissance artist,” here.

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