This essay will focus on a comparison of Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara (1541-1609) by El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), 1600, 170.8 x 108cm, oil on canvas, currently held at the HO Havemeyer Collection and Portrait of the Artist’s Great- Granduncle Yizhai at the Age of Eighty-Five by Ruan Zude, 1561 or 1621, 156.8 x 96.2 cm, ink and color on silk, currently held at Seymour Fund. Although both paintings were created in the same period and both are portraits, they are from different regions and are very distinct in style and composition. This is why I have chosen to compare and contrast them.
El Greco (1541-1614) was born in Crete, which was part of the Venetian state; the artist spent some time in Venice, where he met Titian and studied his works. Experts note that the rich emotional extent inherent in the portraits of Titian’s clergy may have influenced El Greco (“Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara,” 2021). The painting depicts Fernando Niño de Guevara (1541–1609), who served as cardinal from 1596 and later became the Inquisitor General of Spain in 1599. The picture was painted in the spring of 1600 when the cardinal visited Toledo with Philip III and the Madrid court members. The painting was probably commissioned by Pedro Lasso, the nephew of Cardinal Guevara, a famous patron of the artist. The portrait was later used as a symbol of family pride, as it was an image of a renowned family member by an equally famous artist and could be kept in a residence or a family chapel. The portrait was also a public gesture, as it raised the status of the owner’s family.
Ruan Zude (16th or early 17th century) was a renowned Chinese artist who, in a series of two portraits, Portrait of the Artist’s Great-Granduncle and Portrait of an Old Lady, portrayed his relatives. The main artistic message is the clothing of sitters, and the distinguishing feature is the use of azurite to depict sitters’ robes (Ngan, 2018). The Portrait of the Artist’s Great-Granduncle was painted for the sitter’s birthday, as evidenced by several characteristics.
Formal Visual Analysis
El Greco (1541-1614), although he worked in the genre of realism, had his unique style, within which he successfully conveyed the emotional component of his paintings (Kilroy-Ewbank, 2018). The artist uses crimson for the cardinal’s robe and the chair he is sitting on. White color is used for the sleeves, collar, and hem of the dress, as well as for the cardinal’s arms and beard, and the brown color creates a contrasting background. El Greco also uses gold to highlight de Guevara’s high position. The colors have different saturations; white is light, reflecting de Guevara’s relation to the clergy since his crimson robe has expressive light overflows. The complexion and color of the cardinal’s hands are in strong contrast, the face is depicted in rich yellow-pink tones, and the hands are deathly pale.
El Greco expressively conveys the texture of the expensive fabric of the cardinal’s robe and dress made of silk, satin, and brocade, with a lace pattern, the texture of leather shoes, and velvet chair upholstery. For the background, El Greco uses a brown and white marble tiles pattern, wallpaper with large golden designs, and symmetrical squares of a wooden door. The background composition creates an unbalanced contrast between the left and right half of the body and the face of the cardinal, shading them in different ways and dividing the face precisely in the middle. This effect was probably intentionally created to symbolically express the contradictory character of the cardinal.
El Greco has used different shapes, and the cardinal’s body looks more rounded against the harsh squares of the background. In addition, the cardinal wears round glasses, which transmits to his image a very innocent expression. At the feet of the cardinal lies a piece of paper, as if accidentally dropped, which creates minimal dynamics in the picture. The sitter’s form looks voluminous, even somewhat menacing and disturbing, thanks to the use of a darker background for the left side of the face. Darkness also lurks in the folds of the cardinal’s dress, and one of the tiles, the one on which the fallen piece of paper lies, has a darker hue. The figure of the cardinal has a clear outline; his clothes are in cold crimson and white pearlescent colors, while the background is in warmer colors of wood, gold, and dark green drapery. The artist used sharper lines to depict the cardinal’s face and arms, zigzags and wavy lines for his clothes, as well as straight, strict lines for the left side of the painting background, playful swirls for the right side, and disturbing brown and white circles and squares for the bottom side.
Ruan Zude created Portrait of the Artist’s Great-Granduncle in the tradition of the birthday portrait genre. The older man’s image is flat, as the artist uses very little contrast and shadows to create the form (“Portrait of the Artist’s Great-Granduncle,” 2021). The only exception is the great-grandfather’s headscarf, which contrasts his face. Blue and light brown colors dominate the painting; blue was used for the sitter’s clothes, and light brown for the background.
The artist uses counter drawing and straight, bold lines to depict the sitter’s robe and shoes and lighter strokes to draw the face in detail. Ruan Zude also uses a clouds pattern and a swastika pattern that converges into an H-shaped way for the robe. Both visual and physical textures are flat; the artist uses geometric shapes to depict a robe, pushing the sitter who wears it into the background. The saturation of colors creates the dynamics – a more saturated blue cold shade is balanced by a less vivid warm brown tone of the background; the value of colors is rather dark.
Similarities and Differences
At first glance, the two pictures are very similar, but further analysis reveals many differences. The figure of the cardinal is much more expressive and vivid than that of the great-grandfather. The figure of the great-grandfather has a balanced composition. It brings peace, in contrast to the portrait of the cardinal, which evokes emotions of inexplicable fear and anxiety. Unlike Ruan Zude, El Greco creates a more voluminous shape using many shades and playing with light. Therefore, the picture’s value gives a deceptive lightness and emphasizes the contradiction with the heavy dark background, replete with many patterns. The sitter’s role is also an important distinction, as Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara (1541–1609) was an influential public and religious figure, and the Portrait of the Artist’s Great-Granduncle depicts an ordinary person. Interestingly, both paintings were commissioned by relatives of the sitters for personal use.
Time, Place, and Context
Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara’s portrait is painted within the tradition and resembles the Portrait of Pope Paul III by Titian. Given that Titian also painted Pope Paul III and His Grandsons, which effectively conveys the characters’ rich emotional life, it is unclear why El Greco painted the portrait of Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara using more static image dynamics. Perhaps he did not know the cardinal very well, or he was trying to meet the customer’s requirements. The image uses a rather gloomy color scheme, which is exactly the same as the one chosen by Titian for Portrait of Pope Paul III. It can be assumed that de Guevara’s recent appointment as inquisitor general was the reason why El Greco deliberately ensured the resemblance between the two portraits. In general, de Guevara’s figure looks more secular than spiritual because of the interior in which he is depicted. Remarkably, this painting has nothing to do with the famous portrait of El Greco the Savior, either in terms of emotional expression or in the context of the embedded meaning (Kilroy-Ewbank, 2018).
Ruan Zude created the Portrait of the Artist’s Great-Granduncle as a birthday portrait. However, the picture has another embedded meaning since the sitter, a common person, wears clothes prescribed to be worn only by officials of the first to third rank of the Ming dynasty (Ngan, 2018). The artist tried to draw attention to this social phenomenon since wearing clothes that did not correspond to status and position created chaos in society. Various details indicate the discrepancy, such as the lack of trim on the sleeves, the red color of the shoes, and the blue color of the sitter’s belt (Ngan, 2018). These elements prove that the application of the cloud pattern, which was used only for high-ranking officials’ clothing, is presented here on purpose. Additional evidence of this is the swastika pattern for the sleeves of the underwear robe and the peonies and vine design for the chair’s upholstery. These both are a symbol of the wish for longevity, while the clouds could symbolize immortality.
I chose to compare and contrast these two artworks because both of them appealed to me. In my opinion, both paintings present exciting information about the period in which they were painted. The portrait of Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara reveals an intriguing story of El Greco’s relationship with his patrons and clergy, and the Portrait of the Artist’s Great-Granduncle shows that visual arts could be the subject of criticism of social foundations in medieval China.
Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara (1541–1609) ca. 1600. (2021). Web.
Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank, L. (2021). The Renaissance in Spain. Web.
Portrait of the Artist’s Great-Granduncle Yizhai at the Age of Eighty-Five dated “xinyou” (1561 or 1621?). (2021). Web.
Ngan, Q. (2018). The significance of azurite blue in two Ming dynasty birthday portraits. Metropolitan Museum Journal, 53(1), 48-65.