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Past Exhibition

An Allegory

Oil painting of three figure around candle

El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos)
(Greek, 1541–1614, active in Spain 1577–1614)
An Allegory (Fábula), ca. 1585–95
Oil on canvas
26 1/2 x 35 in.
Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh 
© Trustees of the National Galleries of Scotland

This enigmatic scene recalls Pliny the Elder’s description, from the first century c.e., of a painting depicting “a boy blowing a fire, which . . . throws a light upon the features of the youth.” In recreating, or rivaling, this lost work from antiquity, El Greco displays his virtuoso treatment of light and shadow. The embers and the boy’s face and fingertips glow against the surrounding darkness, and ridges of white paint sparkle along his collar, cuff, and nostril. The presence of the monkey evokes the classical notion of art as the ape of nature while the man, whose toothy grin and red and yellow attire identify him as a fool, may allude to the ultimate folly of the painter’s aim of reproducing the visible world — or, perhaps, of imitating the ancients.