(Luis Meléndez “Self-Portrait.” Photo courtesy of Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, N.Y.)
|“Still Life with Pears, Grapes, Peaches, and Receptacles.” About 1772, Luis Meléndez, Spanish, 1716–1780; oil on canvas; private collection. (Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.)
|“Still Life with Bream, Oranges, Garlic, Condiments, and Kitchen Utensils.” 1772, Luis Meléndez, Spanish, 1716–1780; oil on canvas; Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. (Photo courtesy of Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid)
Garlic cloves. Pears. Grapes. A ceramic jug. Such familiar household objects are transformed into images of serene harmony in the deeply pleasurable exhibition, “Luis Meléndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life,” on view through May 9 at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (MFA).
Organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and accompanied by a superb catalog, it is the first U.S. exhibition in 25 years of Luis Egidio Meléndez (1715–1780), the premier still-life painter in 18th-century Spain. Despite his prodigious gifts, he died a pauper and was long overlooked until recent reappraisal by scholars and collectors. Now, Meléndez is regarded as one of the greatest still-life artists in all of Europe.
Drawing works from the Museo Nacional del Prado in Spain and other public and private collections in the U.S. and Europe, the exhibition presents 30 works in oil on canvas painted by Meléndez from 1760 to 1774 on the same theme — Spain’s bounty. The paintings convey the luscious abundance of his nation’s “terroir” — the character of its land and climate as manifested through its produce.
One early painting is a sort of professional calling card. “Self-portrait” (1746) shows the artist at age 31, handsomely dressed in Spanish courtly attire and proudly displaying a bravura figure drawing. He appears ready to claim a place as a court painter.
But the prestige and security of a court appointment eluded Meléndez, in part due to the fractious temperament of his father, Francisco Antonio Meléndez, an accomplished painter of miniatures. A dispute between his father and colleagues at Madrid’s new art academy got both artists expelled from court circles.
In Italy on his own, Meléndez sought patrons and mentors and continued his artistic education in Rome, where direct observation of classical models probably freed him from the stilted academic styles of the day.
Seven years later, while Meléndez was back in Madrid helping his father paint miniatures for the king’s choir book, his gifts caught the eye of Charles III, Prince of Asturias, who later became King Charles IV.
Meléndez obtained a commission from the prince that was to be a short-lived pinnacle of his court career. His project was to create a series of still lifes for the palace’s new natural history museum. He painted 44 canvases for the commission, which lasted from 1771 to 1776. The exhibition displays nine of these works, as well as similar works that Meléndez produced for other patrons.
Accomplishing an early feat of conceptual art, Meléndez elevated his assignment from the prince, declaring that his series would depict “the four Seasons of the Year…with every species of food produced by the Spanish climate.”
His resulting artistic legacy is a set of timeless works that celebrate the daily good life.
In Meléndez, Spain’s bounty met its poet. His naturalistic, closely observed images capture the arabesque whirl of a tendril on a grape stem, the spiral of uncoiled twine on a cork, the languorous lines of fish fins, withering leaves, the bruises on plump pear skins, the stippled rinds of oranges, the luscious oval of an eggplant, the glistening surface of a glazed jug, and the gold and rose hues of apricots.
His paintings blend such sensuous detail with formal elegance and simplicity. He was tirelessly inventive in compositions that converge colors, textures, shapes — the better to appreciate the exuberant excesses within nature — as well as his virtuosity.
Showcasing staples of a Mediterranean diet — a variety of fruits, vegetables, meats, fish and bread — as well as handcrafted implements for kitchen, hearth and dining table, the paintings have names that often read like recipes. Each showcases from two to five of these elements, which, like actors in a repertory company, alternate between lead and supporting roles.
From refined stemware to rustic pottery, the implements are timeless too. Some tools from the artist’s era are on view. Except for an ornately painted bowl from Mexico — a prized New World import — most of the objects were made in towns near Madrid, including a cork-lined wine cooler; a brass mortar and pestle; burly cooking pots of copper and ceramic; and glazed earthenware.
With light always cast from the left, the compositions explore relationships among forms, shapes, colors and textures.
Paintings are paired to show subtle changes between similar compositions, and some are accompanied by X-radiographs that reveal the artist’s rearrangement of elements even after achieving pleasing compositions.
Meléndez often let the pigment of an earlier version bleed into the newer layer of paint, the mingling of tones adding nuance to the latest image. In one painting, the skin of pears incorporates the stippled rind of oranges that were in the original composition. Likewise, in “Still Life with Figs and Bread” (ca. 1770), the multi-colored figs gain notes of red from a former element, strawberries.
The X-radiographs also show the economy of his method. Meléndez created highly refined images on low-grade, coarsely woven canvas and frequently recycled his materials. One over-painted canvas previously held his portrait of King Ferdinand VI, among his early attempts at a conventional court project.
Meléndez achieved subtle textural and tonal effects through virtuoso handling of paint. In “Still Life with Cauliflower and Basket of Fish, Eggs and Leeks” (ca. 1770), brushwork of pointillist precision builds the texture of the cauliflower florets. Varying his brush work, he also renders the grains of wrapping paper, the sheen of a copper pot, the weave of a basket, the grooves in the flesh of fish, and a tangle of garlic roots to orchestrate a visual symphony of complementary and contrasting tones, shapes and textures out of the simple ingredients of a meatless Lenten meal.
In “Still Life with Bread, Bottle and Jug” (ca. 1770), concentric circles within the plump rounds of “tortadas” bread complement the vertical containers in a composition of spare curves and planes as well as rich textures.
The exhibition includes a curious yet alluring quartet of landscape paintings. One places a garland of artichokes and peas before a broken tree with a barren peak in the distance.
Another panorama features voluptuous chunks of watermelon, dripping with juice and shiny seeds. An adjacent landscape sets pomegranate fruit within lush vegetation accented by a small red flower.
Evoking an Art Nouveau jewelry case, the curved shell-like pomegranate rind holds the ruby beads of fruit, wrapped in delicate tissue. Once more, Meléndez renders a symphony of textures, tones and forms — and adds a new dimension, the earth and sky.
In his fidelity to rich organic forms and fascination with daily domestic objects, Meléndez anticipates still life breakthroughs to come, including the shimmering abstracted pears of Paul Cézanne (1839-1906); the spare studies of Italian Futurist Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964); and contemporary painter Wayne Thiebaud’s grids of cakes and pies. And more like modern artists than those of his own time, Meléndez was inventive both in art and in his capacity to create his own destiny.
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