El Greco (1541-1614), Jerónimo de Cevallos, circa 1610, oil on canvas, 70.8 x 62.7cm, Prado Museum.
On holiday in Greece last week, I wiled many an hour reading W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. An orphan keen for adventure, Philip Carey – the novel’s protagonist – spends a brief time in Paris as a would-be artist, before settling down in London to train as a doctor where he falls into a tortured and masochistic affair with Mildred, a waitress in the city’s West End.
After Mildred runs off with Griffiths, his house and classmate from medical school, Philip becomes consumed by his studies, and befriends a patient called Athelny who shares his passion for art. Depressed and lonely, Philip is enraptured by photographs Athelny shows him of works by Greek (see the clumsy link?) artist El Greco (born Doménikos Theotokópoulos). I realise this isn’t the first time we’ve shared and relied upon Maugham’s insights into art, but forgive us, this is simply beautiful:
‘Philip looked again at the series of portraits of Spanish gentlemen, with ruffles and pointed beards, their faces pale against the sober black of their clothes and the darkness of the background. El Greco was the painter of the soul; and these gentlemen, wan and wasted, not by exhaustion but by restraint, with their tortured minds, seem to walk unaware of the beauty of the world; for their eyes look only in their hearts, and they are dazzled by the glory of the unseen. No painter has shown more pitilessly that the world is but a place of passage. The souls of the men he painted speak their strange longings through their eyes: their senses are miraculously acute, not for sounds and odours and colour, but for the very subtle heart within him, and his eyes see things which saints in their cells see too, and he is unastounded. His lips are not lips that smile.’ TA