Best known today for his expressive religious paintings, El Greco (1541–1614) was also a talented portrait painter. During his lifetime, his portraits were acclaimed for their sense of vivid, penetrating reality, and many of them entered the Spanish royal collection shortly after his death.
The Frick’s Vincenzo Anastagi showcases El Greco’s mastery of portraiture during his sojourn in Italy before his departure for Spain. A powerful and unusual work, the portrait testifies to the painter’s artistic and worldly aspirations in Rome.
El Greco strove to secure patronage in the Eternal City and painting portraits of prospective clients was one effective way to win their favor. Vincenzo Anastagi, a middle-ranking nobleman without much interest in art, would not have seemed like a promising patron. He was, however, connected to an eminent personage: Jacopo Boncompagni, the natural son of Pope Gregory XIII. Boncompagni, governor of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo and head of the papal army, named Anastagi sergeant major of the Castel Sant’Angelo in 1575. The personal connection between Anastagi and Boncompagni may well have motivated El Greco, who could expect that the portrait would be shown to Boncompagni, a great patron of the arts, and possibly even to his father, the pope.
It would have been natural for El Greco, in painting Anastagi, to refer to the most recent, successful likeness of Jacopo Boncompagni in armor, finished in 1574 by Scipione Pulzone. At the time, Pulzone was the most sought-after portraitist in Rome. He enjoyed the kind of fame and status that the ambitious El Greco was eager to obtain. As a result, El Greco adapts elements of the Jacopo Boncompagni, such as the half-armor motif, but takes a very different overall approach, achieving an emphasis on individual character and proudly displaying his own artistic virtuosity.