THR Web Features   /   January 22, 2015

Recognizing Art

Leann Davis Alspaugh

( The Battle of the Pictures (1745) by William Hogarth (British, London 1697–1764 London), Gift of Sarah Lazarus, 1891; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.)


In 1603, El Greco was commissioned to decorate the chapel at the Hospital of Charity in Illescas, Spain. Up to this point, El Greco had had an enviable life as a successful artist. True, his Mannerist style of emaciated figures and elongated faces did not result in a steady stream of royal commissions, but he lived comfortably in Toledo, renting spacious apartments in a nobleman’s villa and taking the commissions he wanted. He was so well off that he could afford to maintain musicians who played while he dined. His prosperity even allowed him to refuse to pay taxes on this work. So he enjoyed a measure of independence as well.

El Greco, it should be understood, also knew the value of his work. According to the practice of the day, an artist’s fees were determined when the work was completed. The assessment, or tasación, was performed by a group of individuals nominated by the artist and the patron. When El Greco received an insultingly low valuation for his work at the hospital, he launched a long and bitter court battle that quietly changed the perception of artists and art in Spain.

In the case of the Illescas commission, El Greco committed a number of sins. First, he failed to complete the chapel commission within the year stipulated—it took him two years. Next, he departed significantly from the chapel decoration’s original design, although it is difficult to imagine how excessive gilding and the statue of a Biblical prophet might be objectionable for a Baroque altarpiece. Perhaps, the greatest failing in the eyes of the valuation committee was El Greco’s insertion of certain recognizable faces among the supernumeraries at the edge of the painting, individuals who were dressed in ruff collars and somber seventeenth-century attire. The insertion of contemporary figures into Biblical scenes was not an unusual practice, although the complaint against El Greco was that his inclusion of real people drew attention away from the main figure of Mary as the Virgin of Chastity. Dedicated as the chapel was to this particular depiction of the Virgin, this was perhaps a legitimate point.

El Greco’s representatives stated that the hospital acted maliciously and “rendered such a low valuation in order to bring him evil and harm and to destroy him.” What’s more, the defense continued, the valuators set themselves up not as appraisers but as critics, alleging that El Greco’s work was indecent (those ruff collars again) and full of imperfections. In addition, because the valuators failed to consult the artist in their assessments, they were unable to receive the kind of detail they needed in order to arrive at an unbiased tasación. El Greco would spend the next two years filing countersuits in an attempt to have the valuation increased, but he finally grew tired of the bother and accepted the low fee. To add insult to injury, the hospital later ordered the contemporary figures to be painted out.

Midway through the process, El Greco filed a petition to avoid paying taxes on the commission by arguing that he practiced painting as a liberal art. Scholars identify this as the first time in Spain that painting was officially recognized as an art form on a higher plane than the mechanical or technical arts. Renaissance Italy was a little more advanced: The architect Leon Battista Alberti and the painter Masaccio, among others, had already made such a point in the fifteenth century. In his well-stocked library, El Greco owned works by Alberti and may have been familiar with this argument from On Painting (1435), which urged that painting was of intellectual value because of its capacity to represent beauty and nature and not simply to inspire reverence for God.

By importing this view of art to Spain, El Greco spread the idea of painting’s increasingly humanistic role; when he brought this idea to the attention of the court, he showed that an individual’s inventiveness and originality were legally recognizable aspects of creativity. In short, it was no longer enough for a work of art to represent a patron’s ideas; now, art might represent the ideas of the artist as well. (It also meant that the artist would be responsible for these ideas.) El Greco’s self-awareness was not inconsiderable—after all, this was the same man who had approached Pope Pius V in Rome with an offer to paint over Michelangelo’s highly controversial Last Judgment. (The story goes that El Greco ended up fleeing Rome for Toledo when his Roman peers learned of his hubris.) But El Greco’s attempt to establish painting as part of the artes liberales, or arts worthy of free people, also adds a democratic understanding of the worth of the individual in the creative process.

This idea would be played out on a grander scale in Britain’s 1735 Engravers’ Copyright Act, also known as the Hogarth Act after the British painter and engraver William Hogarth (1697–1764). Hogarth skewered British society, the church, and politics with his popular satirical engravings such as A Rake’s Progress (1735) and Marriage-à-la-Mode (1743–1745). As his popularity grew, so did the unauthorized reproductions of his work.

For his 1731–1732 series, A Harlot’s Progress, Hogarth decided to cut out the printsellers by publishing and distributing it himself through subscriptions. In short order, “no less than eight piratical imitations” appeared which the printsellers then copied and sold at prices less than Hogarth’s own. As Hogarth biographer Ronald Paulson notes, the engraver-entrepreneur’s next step was “to secure my Property to myself.” Although there existed at the time the Statute of Anne (1710), another important copyright milestone, it was limited to booksellers who used it to promote the book trade. The Hogarth Act protected the individual engravers against the printsellers. Engravers made the case that they were superior practitioners, designing “the Foundation of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture” as well as “all the Train of inferior Arts.” Further, they claimed, in commentator Ronan Deazley words, that “the quality of designing and engraving would do nothing if not transform the nation’s artistic and cultural canvas.”

In just over the span of a century, from El Greco’s suit to the Hogarth Act, we see creativity and the parameters of artistic autonomy grow considerably, at least in legal terms. While El Greco and members of his workshop were actively involved in making copies of the artist’s most popular paintings, this was hardly the same as “piratical” editions of Hogarth’s work in which the engraver had no involvement other than his chagrin at watching others profit from work of lesser quality. In both cases, however, the artist’s reputation and name were defamed, leading to potential loss of future income. And in both cases, the artists found legal means to clarify ideas such as ownership and value and their tangible and intangible corollaries.

By positioning himself as a practitioner of the liberal arts, El Greco wanted not simply to increase his prestige as an artist (and his fees) but also to ally himself with higher aims. Hogarth discerned a market for his particular form of commentary on British politics and culture and wanted to see his efforts recognized. El Greco wasn’t looking for the kind of legal protection that Hogarth would later seek, but the two artists shared a similar intent: Both sought recognition, and by extension, protection of the artist’s agency as a means of shaping culture. Artists, authors, musicians—and yes, cartoonists for satirical French weeklies—see this as vital, perhaps as necessary as genius.