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Widespread interest in the story of Laocoön, a mythical priest of Troy, developed after an ancient, monumental sculpture representing him and his two sons was unearthed in 1506 in Rome. Suspecting trickery, Laocoön had warned his countrymen not to accept the wooden horse left outside Troy by the Greeks and had hurled his spear at it to prove that it was hollow. Thus the priest incurred the wrath of the gods, for desecrating an object dedicated to the goddess Athena. El Greco depicted serpents, sent by the angry gods, engaging Laocoön and one son in a mortal struggle, while a second son lies already dead at his father's side. The identity of the unfinished figures on the right continues to be debated; perhaps they represent the gods themselves supervising their vengeance.

Utilizing every available means-writhing line, lurid color, and illogically conceived space- the artist projected an unrelieved sense of doom. The figures seem incorporeal; sinuous outlines and anti-natural flesh tones contribute to their specterlike appearance. The striking setting carries this visionary late work of El Greco to an apocalyptic extreme.

Did El Greco intend to relate this mythical theme of conflict and divine retribution to the Inquisition then raging in Toledo? Whatever the case, the story of Laocoön is the only classical theme he is known to have painted.

Details

  • Title: Laocoön
  • Date Created: c. 1610 - 1614
  • Physical Dimensions: w1725 x h1375 cm (overall)
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: Samuel H. Kress Collection
  • External Link: National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • painter: El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos)
  • Theme: mythology, classical
  • School: Spanish
  • Provenance: Probably in El Greco's possession at his death;[1] his son Jorge Manuel Theotócópuli, Toledo, in 1621.[2] The Infante Antonio María Felipe Luis de Orleáns, Duque de Montpensier [1824 1890], Seville;[3] by inheritance to his son, the Infante Don Antonio de Orleáns, Duque de Galliera, Sanlúcar de Barremada, Cádiz.[4] (Durand Ruel, Paris) by 1910.[5] (Paul Cassirer, Berlin) by October 1915.[6] The pianist Edwin Fischer [1886 1960], Basel and Berlin, by 1923;[7] Eleanora Irme von Jeszenski von Mendelssohn, Berlin, who was divorced from Fischer in 1925, by 1926.[8] T.R.H. Prince and Princess Paul of Yugoslavia, Belgrade, Johannesburg, and Paris by May 1934;[9] consigned by Prince Paul in 1946 to (M. Knoedler and Co., London, Paris, and New York), who sold it later that year to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[10] gift 1946 to NGA. [1] The inventory made of the artist's estate in 1614 included two examples of "a small Laocoön" Provenance ("Un laocon pequeño) and one large painting of this subject ("Un laocon grande"). Francisco de Borja de San Román y Fernández, El Greco en Toledo (Madrid, 1910): 193. Because the measurements of the Kress painting correspond most closely to those of the smallest of the versions cited in the inventory of 1621 (see n. 2 below), it seems likely that the Kress painting was one of the two small versions recorded in 1614. [2] The inventory made of the possessions of Jorge Manuel in 1621 includes the following items: "41 Un laocon, de dos baras de largo y bara y dos terzias de alto" ("A Laocoön of two varas in width and one and two thirds of a vara in height"). "179 Un laocon grande, de tres baras y media en quadrado" ("A large Laocoön, three and one half varas square"). "180 Otro laocon, casi del mismo Tamaño" ("Another Laocoön, almost the same size"). Francisco de Borja de San Román y Fernández, "De la vida del Greco," Archivo Español de Arte y Arqueologia 3 (1927), 291, 301. Because a vara equals approximately 84 cm., the measurements of no. 41 correspond closely to those of the Kress painting. The difference in the numbers of large and small versions of the subject mentioned in the two inventories suggest that Jorge Manuel sold one of the two smaller paintings in his father's estate and that he or another artist in the workshop produced another large copy of the composition before 1621. Alternatively, a mistake may have been made in one of the inventories. Many previous scholars have maintained that the Kress painting was in the Spanish royal collection in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Manuel B. Cossío, El Greco (Madrid, 1908), 362; Emilio H. del Villar, El Greco en España (Madrid, 1928), 132; Walter S. Cook, "El Greco's Laocoön in the National Gallery," Gazette des Beaux Arts 26 (1944), 262, n. 1; José Camón Aznar, Domenico Greco (Madrid, 1950) 2: 921; Harold E. Wethey, El Greco and His School (Princeton, 1962) 2: 84, no. 127; Colin Eisler, Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: European Schools Excluding Italian (Oxford, 1977), 198, no. K1413; William B. Jordan, El Greco of Toledo [exh. cat.] (1982 1983), 257, no. 56. However, it is likely that the royal inventories refer not to the Kress painting but to one of the larger versions cited in the 1621 inventory (nos. 179 and 180). The relevant entries are as follows: Alcázar, Madrid, Inventory of 1666, no. 520: "3 varas casi en quadro de Lauconte y sus hijos de mano del Greco en 300 dicadps de plata" ("3 varas, almost square, of Laocoön and his sons, by the hand of El Greco, at 300 silver ducados"). Harold E. Wethey, letter, 22 June 1969, NGA curatorial files. Alcázar, Madrid, Inventory of 1686, no. 310: "Un quadro de tres baras de largo casi quadrado de la Oconte y sus hijos de blanco y negro de mano del Griego, tiene Marco negro como las demas pinturas de esta pieza" ("A painting, three varas in width, almost square, of Laocoön and his sons, in white and black by the hand of El Greco, has a black frame like the other paintings in this room"). Yves Bottineau, "L'Alcázar de Madrid et l'inventaire de 1686: aspects de la cour d'Espagne au XVIIe siècle," Bulletin Hispanique 60 (1958), 164. Alcázar, Madrid, Inventory of 1701 1703, no. 119: "Un cuadro de tres varas de largo quasi quadrado de laoconte y sus hijos de blanco y negro de mano del Griego con marco negro tasado en cien Doblons" ("A painting three varas in width, almost square, of Laocoön and his sons, in white and black by the hand of El Greco, with a black frame valued at 100 doblones"). Gloria Fernández Bayton, ed., Inventarios reales: Testamentario del Rey Carlos II, 6 vols. (Madrid, 1975 ), 1:29. The dimensions given in all these inventories correspond to the now lost larger versions of the Laocoön but not to the Kress painting. The dimensions given in all these inventories correspond to the now lost larger versions of the Laocoön but not to the Kress painting. The Kress painting has also been related to references in the royal inventories of 1701 1703 and 1791 to an approximately square painting of Laocoön, about two varas across, said to be a copy of Titian. The width of this painting approximates that of the Kress painting. However, it seems most unlikely that the Kress painting would have been described as a copy of Titian, especially because an original Laocoön by El Greco and the copy after Titian were recorded in the royal collections at the same time (Fernández Bayton 1975 , 1:29, no. 119; 2:324, no. 581). Spanish critics of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries carefully distinguished the styles of Titian and El Greco, and the compilers of the royal inventories probably would not have confused them. See, e. g. Antonio Palomino de Castro y Velasco, El Museo pictórico y escala óptica (1715 and 1724, reprint ed., Madrid, 1947), 841; and Antonio Ponz, Viaje de España, ed. C. María de Rivero (Madrid, 1947), 640. [3] Catalogo de los cuadros y esculturas pertenecientes á la galeria de SS. AA. RR. los Serenísmos Señores Infantes de España, Duques de Montpensier (Seville, 1866), 44, no. 155. [4] Manuel B. Cossío, El Greco (Madrid, 1908), 579, no. 162. [5] Colin Eisler, 1977 (see n. 2 above), 198, 201, n. 163, no. K1413. On loan to the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, July 1911 1913. The ownership of the painting from 1911 to October 1915 is uncertain. [6] Ludwig Burchard, "Werke alter Kunst aus Berliner Privatbesitzer," Kunst und Kunstler 13 (1915), 525. Recorded in 1914 and again in 1915 as on loan to the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, Berlin. [7] "Die Zeit und der Markt: Sammlungen," Der Cicerone 15 (1923), 1156 1157; H. U. Schmid, "Über das Jahr 1923," Jahresbericht der öffentlichen Kunstsammlungen, Basel 20 (1923), 6; H. U. Schmid, Über das Provenance Jahr 1924: Gemäldegalerie," Jahresbericht der öffentlichen Kunstsammlungen, Basel 21 (1924), 6. [8] R. Riggenbach, "Über das Jahr 1926: Gemäldegalerie," Jahresbericht der öffentlichen Kunstsammlungen, Basel 23 (1926), 27; Otto Fischer, "Bericht über das Jahr 1928: Gemäldegalerie," Jahresbericht der öffentlichen Kunstsammlungen, Basel (1928), 6; Otto Fischer, "Bericht über das Jahr 1929," Jahresbericht der öffentlichen Kunstsammlungen, Basel (1929), 34. Basic biographical information about Fischer and Von Jeszenski von Mendelssohn is given in Neue Deutsche Biographie 5 (Munich, 1961), 180. Walter S. Cook, "El Greco's Laocoön in the National Gallery," Gazette des Beaux Arts 26 (1944), 262, n. 1 maintains that the Laocoön was purchased before 1914 by Fischer's wife, whom he misidentifies as Frau von Schwabach. Because this painting was owned by the dealer Cassirer in 1915, this supposition is unlikely. However, the painting may have been purchased by ischer's wife before their marriage in 1919. Frau von Schwabach may possibly have been an earlier owner, unrelated to Fischer. [9] Kenneth Clark, , "Report: National Gallery, 1935," National Gallery and Tate Gallery Directors' Reports 1935 (London, 1935), 4. On loan to the National Gallery, London, May 1934 December 1935. During the Second World War, Prince Paul, then resident in Johannesburg, arranged to have the painting at the National Gallery, Washington, for safekeeping (David Edward Finley, A Standard of Excellence: Andrew W. Mellon Founds the National Gallery of Art at Washington, [Washington, DC, 1973], 89). [10] John Walker, Self Portrait with Donors (Boston, 1974), 144 146, presents a lively discussion of the negotiations involved in the sale.

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