Hardly a familiar name even to devoted art lovers, Luis Melendez (1715‱780) is nonetheless considered one of the greatest Spanish painters of the Eighteenth Century and one of the all-time great still life painters. To Twenty-First Century connoisseurs, his paintings look superbly composed, astutely lighted and painted with breathtaking precision in engaging †one can say, appetizing †compositions. Yet Melendez’s recognition over the years seems to have been lost in the towering shadow of fellow Spaniard Francisco Goya (1746‱828).
In recent years, however, scholars and collectors have taken an increasing interest in the Spanish still life master, stimulated by extensive technical findings about Melendez’s meticulous painting methods. There is renewed appreciation for the sheer beauty of his oeuvre †his remarkable talent for rendering ordinary objects with acute detail, wondrous effects of color and light and subtle variations of texture. Moreover, his stark realism and austere compositions, reflecting timeless sensibilities, anticipate aspects of Modern art.
This revived appreciation for the artist’s achievements is bound to be enhanced by a superb retrospective, “Luis Melendez, Master of Spanish Still Life,” already seen at the National Gallery of Art and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). It is currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through May 9.
Organized by National Gallery curator Gretchen A. Hirschauer and conservator Catherine A. Metzger and by LACMA curator Patrice Marandel, the exhibition features 28 paintings by Melendez, plus a selection of Eighteenth Century kitchenware, similar to those used by the artist as studio props. Both Hirschauer and National Gallery director Earl A. Powell III say that Melendez created “some of the best still lifes ever made.”
Melendez became a premier still life painter during a career filled with ambition and failure, dogged by a sense of personal despair. Little is known about many aspects of his life and career, but it is fair to say that his progress was held back by a series of incidents and a difficult personality.
Born in Naples, Italy, then under Spanish rule, Melendez was initially trained in miniature painting by his Spanish artist/father, Francisco Antonio, a talented miniaturist and embellisher of manuscripts. Melendez also worked for six years in the studio of a French portraitist to the Spanish royal court, reproducing likenesses of the royal family.
In 1738, Melendez apparently stabbed one of his father’s former apprentices who had been found guilty of raping his older sister. No charges were filed against him, but art historian Peter Cherry in the catalog says, “The incident was a chilling example of the audacity and pride that made up” the personality of Melendez, driving him “to take the law into his own hands, personally and fiercely avenging the family honor.” This was a forerunner of a life filled with arguments and dust-ups.
In a revealing self portrait painted in 1746 just after he received the highest mark on the examination to enter the inaugural class at Madrid’s provisional royal academy of art, the 31-year-old Melendez showcased his talents. He presented himself as an elegantly dressed, self-assured †even haughty †young artist, holding a drawing of a male nude. It is an accomplished work, highlighted by the play of light on accurately rendered objects and textures and subtle color variations that distinguished his later work.
Melendez’s bright prospects for a successful career focused on traditional historic, religious or portrait subjects disintegrated in 1748 following a feud between his father and the director of the local arts academy, which Francisco Antonio had helped establish. Father and son were expelled from the institution. “It is highly probable that the reputation of the Melendez family was strongly affected,” says curator Marandel.
Indeed, the incident was a serious blow not only to the son’s hopes for a successful academic career, but specifically to his aspiration to be painter to the king, which he never achieved. In spite of what appears to have been superior credentials, all four of his petitions to become royal painter were denied, in part because of his dismissal from the academy and because of his difficult nature.
Nevertheless, after further study in Italy, Melendez returned to Madrid in 1753 to assist his father with a commission to illustrate choir books for King Ferdinand VI.
According to Hirschauer and Metzger, Melendez’s miniatures are “inventive and even lush, but loftier commissions would have been anticipated for an artist with the gift for figure study and oil painting displayed in his ‘Self-Portrait.'” Manuscript illustrators, they point out, were “on the lower rungs of the artistic hierarchy” of the day.
It is not clear how Melendez made the transition from miniatures and illuminations to still life painting, but his earliest known efforts showed him in full command of his style. One of Melendez’s early still lifes, dated 1760, “Still Life with Small Pears, Bread, White Pitcher, Glass Bottle and Earthenware Bowl,” was painted, as became his style, from foreground to background, with focus on an unglazed white water jug, surrounded by fruit, with a carefully executed wine bottle and bowl in the background.
On the basis of his early still life achievements, in 1771 Melendez finally received a commission from Charles III, Prince Asturias (later King Charles IV), and his wife to paint an extensive series of still lifes for the New Cabinet of Natural History, a private museum in the Royal Palace. Within depictions of the four seasons of the year, the series was intended to illustrate fruits and vegetables produced in Spain. Including both horizontal and vertical compositions, the canvases are varied in texture and color, and filled with angled light and meticulous details. They are among the finest works Melendez ever painted.
Arguably the artist’s most famous still life, “Still Life with Chocolate Service, Bread Roll and Biscuits,” has a pendant in “Still Life with Box of Jellied Fruit, Bread, Silver Salver, Glass and Wine Cooler,” both dating to 1770, and both destined for the cabinet of the prince. The former, with its imported Chinese cup and pieces of pure chocolate for hot chocolate, is for a winter day, while the latter, with a gleaming glass and wine in a cooler, is for a summer occasion. These are exhibition highlights.
Ever the perfectionist, Melendez painted and repainted a number of his canvases. One of the most extensively reworked is “Still Life with Figs and Bread,” circa 1770.
Recent x-radiographs reveal that the original image featured a large wedge of cheese in the lower right with a much darker background. Some initial pigments that depicted berries show through beneath the multihued figs in the second version, enhancing the new fruits.
On several occasions Melendez painted startlingly detailed, gleaming sea bream, a popular fish among Spaniards, surrounded by items to cook a meal. Each fish has an individual personality. William Merritt Chase, who often painted fish, would be envious.
The last painting for the prince, before he canceled Melendez’s royal commission in 1776, “Still Life with Cucumbers, Tomatoes and Kitchen Utensils,” 1774, is an astute composition showing the makings of a summer salad: knobby, irregularly sized cucumbers and bright red, bulbous tomatoes. A tin olive oil cruet, a corked ceramic bottle of vinegar, a stack of plates and a salt cellar complete what exhibition curators Hirschauer and Metzger call “one of his finest, most luminous paintings.”
Some still lifes were painted over other images, including royal portraits. One x-radiograph shows that a later image completely obscures a likeness of King Ferdinand VI.
In keeping with his close attention to detail, Melendez was fascinated by both the beauty and flaws in objects he depicted. Thus, in “Still Life with Pears, Bread, Jug and Wine Bottle,” circa 1772, he emphasized the bruises and pockmarks on the aging pears, made the loaf of bread look stale and recorded cooking fire burn marks on the ceramic jug. On the other hand, he beautifully recorded the reflection of an interior window on the neck of the dark wine bottle. This painting is a good example of the artist’s ability to turn a seemingly haphazard assemblage of ordinary objects into an aesthetically appealing image.
Melendez kept a supply of kitchenware and other ordinary objects, examples of which are on view, which often served as props in his paintings. He frequently reshuffled them to pose with different edibles, such as bread, cheese, fruit or vegetables.
“Still Life with Melon and Pears,” painted around 1772, is a sort of review of Melendez’s favorite studio props: the cork wine cooler is found in at least ten other paintings; the basket, white kitchen cloth and iron-lidded ceramic bowl were regulars in his repertoire, and the large melon is a stunningly accurate replication of that fruit in other works.
Bread was his favorite still life object. In “Still Life with Bread, Bottle and Jug” and “Still Life with Bread, Grapes, Jug and Receptacles,” both around 1770, the two loaves of bread, a ceramic jug and projecting wooden handles are arranged identically, except that the artist has depicted them from different points of view. They share motifs, but each appears distinctive, with different foreground and background elements.
Similarly, Melendez reused motifs from finished paintings to make new and larger compositions. The birds in “Still Life with Pigeons, Onions, Bread and Kitchen Utensils,” circa 1774, were copied from pigeons in “Still Life with Game,” circa 1770, whereas the bread in “Still Life with Pigeons” was traced from “Still Life with Bread, Grapes.” These are particularly attractive, balanced images. The pigeons are painted with special skill.
Melendez was the rare painter who created outdoor still lifes in which food and other objects appeared in the context of expansive landscapes. Painted as a pair and destined for Charles, Prince of Asturias, were “Still Life with Watermelons and Apples in a Landscape” and “Still Life with Pomegranates, Apples, Azaroles and Grapes in a Landscape,” both dating to 1771. In each, compatible, luscious, bright red fruit stands out in the foreground in contrast to rocky landscapes in the distance with buildings under cloudy skies. Each measuring about 25 by 33 inches, they are beautiful to behold.
In other landscapes, Melendez posed somber green artichokes and peas and artichokes, peas and brilliant red tomatoes on an identical earthen ledge in the foreground, with trees soaring overhead, set against similar towering mountains.
Melendez’s love of tomatoes, at least as an artistic subject, is apparent in numerous paintings, like “Still Life with Tomatoes, a Bowl of Aubergines and Onions,” circa 1771‱774. “Melendez,” says art historian Peter Cherry, “was evidently spellbound by the tomatoes, which are the main theme of the painting.” Indeed, each of the six tomatoes is painted with exquisite attention to their lobed forms, knotty cores and varied shades of red. They stand out against a worn brown table and, in the background, a brown bowl overflowing with baby eggplants, white onions and a single tomato. As Cherry observes, Melendez “transformed these unprepossessing ingredients into one of his most compelling compositions.”
That, of course, was Melendez’s forte: the ability to turn everyday objects into compositions of great artistic merit. In spite of the high quality of his still lifes for the prince and some success with private collectors, he never gained the official position he longed for all his career. In 1780, Melendez declared himself a pauper and died a month later.
It is hard to understand why this gifted artist has been neglected for so long. Kudos to those conservators and art historians who have examined his oeuvre and brought his achievements to the attention of new audiences.
Ironically, it is now recognized that the viewing public is the beneficiary of Melendez’s failure to win a coveted position as royal painter. As Cherry writes in the catalog, “Official success could have turned Melendez into one of the many academic painters who remain obscure to us today, whereas the fruits of his failure were his still lifes, which are among the most brilliant of their kind ever painted.” It seems doubtful Melendez will ever again fall into oblivion.
The 278-page exhibition catalog includes scholarly essays by Cherry, independent scholar Natacha Sesena and Hirschauer and Metzger, as well as entries about each painting in the show. Published by the National Gallery in association with Yale University Press, it sells for $60 hardcover, and $30 softcover.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is at 465 Huntington Ave. For information, 617-267-9300 or www.mfa.org .