If you’ve ever looked closely at an El Greco painting, you might’ve been shocked to learn that the artist lived from 1541 to 1614. So groundbreaking, so ahead of his time was El Greco, that his work almost resembles that of the Impressionist movement, which arose centuries later. As a result of this unabashedly avant-garde, never before seen style, El Greco (born Doménikos Theotokópoulos) was disdained during his lifetime and well after. With his elongated figures, his use of phantasmagorical color, and his emphasis of a different aspect of reality than the exact one we see with our eyes, El Greco alienated his Baroque and Mannerist contemporaries. One contemporary even described El Greco’s paintings as “contemptible and ridiculous, as much for the disjointed drawing as for the unpleasant color.” Only centuries after his death did El Greco achieve recognition for his Modernistic creativity.
The Opening of the Fifth Seal, El Greco, 1608-1614
Selling his first painting at just twelve years old, Joseph Mallord William Turner actually did achieve success and recognition from a very young age. His early work was in line with the Neoclassical style of his time, portraying picturesque and precisely drawn landscapes and history paintings. But soon, his painting style shifted. Lines became less distinct, images became less stark, and his work became dominated by light, color, and feeling. Quite unlike his earlier inoffensive landscapes, these landscapes were defined by vast swirls of pigment that were dedicated to the atmosphere of nature rather than the replication of nature. By the 1840s, even Turner’s former supporters ridiculed his new way of painting. Mark Twain himself cited an anonymous newspaper reporter calling Turner’s Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying a “a tortoiseshell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes.”
Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, J.M.W. Turner, 1840
Edouard Manet, along with Courbet, was a founding figure of the Realist movement, a style devoted to depicting the world and all of its inhabitantstruthfully and without embellishment. Many of Manet’s most famous paintings were, during his lifetime, seen as scandalous and incendiary. For example, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) caused huge controversy due to its depiction of a nude female; unlike classical nudes, Manet’s figure is shown naked — and unembarrassed by her nakedness — while surrounded by clothed men. Similarly, Manet’s Olympia was met with shock and outrage for its depiction of a confidently nude prostitute being offered flowers by a black servant. Critics deemed Manet’s work immoral, with one deriding the artist’s “taste for the inconceivably vulgar.” The writer Émile Zola, however, gave credit to Manet’s objective: “When our artists give us Venuses, they correct nature, they lie. Édouard Manet asked himself why lie, why not tell the truth; he introduced us to Olympia, this fille of our time, whom you meet on the sidewalks.”
Olympia, Édouard Manet, 1863
HENRI DE TOULOUSE-LAUTREC
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is an eccentric figure in history. First, perhaps as a result of inbreeding, Toulouse-Lautrec suffered from a variety of genetic disorders and health problems; he grew to only 4’8”, and he died at 36 (from complications arising from alcoholism and syphilis). Toulouse-Lautrec’s legacy is characterized by the painter’s reputation for a rakish lifestyle and, of course, his artwork chronicling that lifestyle. Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings were criticized not only for their supposed lewdness and immoral depiction of sexuality, but also for their quality of appearing like mere sketches. “It is fortunate for humanity,” wrote one critic, “that there are few artists of his sort. Lautrec’s talent, for it would be absurd to deny him one, was an immoral talent of pernicious … influence.” Many of his paintings of dancers, prostitutes, and brothels that once appalled audiences are now viewed as pioneering works and are lauded for their “sexual frankness.”
Crouching Woman with Red Hair, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1897
One of the major figures of Abstract Expressionism, Barnett Newman was often overlooked and sometimes criticized throughout his career. Newman represented a divergence from so many artists that came before him: many of his paintings are large blocks of color, often featuring “zips” (vertical lines breaking up the spatial structure of the painting). Newman was also highly involved in the philosophy underlying his work, and he contemplated existentialism and metaphysics deeply. But not everyone who saw Newman’s work (and that of other Abstract Expressionists) were fans. In 1957, Frank Getlein of the New Republic equated Newman to no more than a house painter, writing that the Minneapolis Institute of Arts “could have saved a good chunk by getting the plan and having the thing run off by the janitors with rollers.” Nowadays, Barnett Newman is viewed as one of the most influential, innovative artists of his time.