In many major museums, rooms filled with masterpieces share wall space with a work or two by painters not featured in H.W. Jansons History of Art. Occasionally, an overview of one of these odd men out gets mounted. Once seen in context, these panels and canvases tend never to look the same. What was once merely a name on a wall label now evokes dozens of images. After the magisterial Lorenzo Lotto exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. seven years ago and the haunting show devoted to Vilhelm Hammershoi at New Yorks Guggenheim Museum in 1998, the Italians richly colored portraits and religious scenes and the Danes spare interiors and solitary figures were never again works viewed on the way to the heavy hitters.
Luis Melendez, Spains leading purveyor of still-lifes during the 18th-century, is the latest artist to step out from shadows cast by his better known compatriots. Luis Melendez: Bodegones, which closed at the Prado Museum last month, is now on view at the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, through September 5. On July 6, Melendezs Bodegon with bread, two sweets-boxes, a green-glazed honey pot and a Maises ceramic jar will be offered at auction by Christies in London, where it carries an estimate of over three million dollars. The Kimbell Art Museum, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., the National Gallery, London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, not to mention the Prado where work from the royal collections is gathered, already own bodegonesstill-lifes featuring Spanish food and kitchenware, as opposed to, say, flowers-- by Melendez.
The son, nephew, and brother of painters, Luis Egidio Melendez de Rivera Durazo y Santo Padre was born in Naples in 1716. A year later, his father, Francisco Melendez, who had lived abroad for almost two decades, returned to Madrid with his family. Like his siblings, Luis Melendez apprenticed with his parent, who was appointed the Kings Painter of Miniatures in 1725. After several years, in his words, painting royal portraits in jewels and bracelets to serve as gifts for envoys and ambassadors, he entered the workshop of Louis-Michel van Loo, a Frenchman who was the royal portrait painter. He stayed for six years.
When the Real Academia de Bellas Artes was provisionally inaugurated in 1744, Luis Melendez became a student. However, he was expelled a few years later because his father, who had been instrumental in the creation of the royal art school, vehemently opposed the direction the program was taking, Subsequently the young artist left for Rome and Naples to pursue other opportunities. After a fire at the Alcazar Palace in 1753 destroyed scores of illuminated choir books, Francisco Melendez coaxed his 37-year-old son to come back to Spain to help paint new miniatures. Though Luis Melendez eventually executed scores of still-lifes for the royal household, he was never able to secure an official appointment to serve the king. When he died in 1780, he was indigent.
The current show focuses on still-lifes Luis Melendez made between 1759 and 1774. During this period he created at least 44 of them for the Prince of Asturias who ascended to the Spanish crown as Charles IV. The artist himself characterized this body of work as an amusing cabinet with all sorts of food stuffs which the Spanish climate produces. In the exhibition, which features 14 pictures from the Prado and 26 others from public and private collections, there are pictures of fruits, vegetables, herbs, fish, fowl, meat, oysters, eggs, cheese, and bread as well as all sorts of pots, pans, bottles, utensils, and the like plus actual objects similar to those found in the paintings (cooking pots, a honey jar, a chocolate whisk).
Melendez didnt paint garden variety views of fruit and vegetables.
At times, his compositions share more in common with dioramas at a museum of natural history than the apples and oranges you find at Fauchon or Dean and Deluca. Theyre portraits, warts and allor, more correctly, blemishes and all. Moreover, his melons, olives, cucumbers, and heirloom tomatoes look solid as a rock. Rather than appealing to a viewers sense of taste, his food stuffs resemble sculptures you can hold in your hand.
Except for a group of works sited in landscapes replete with foliage and blue, cloud-filled skies, Melendez placed his breads and chops and figs on wooden tabletops and counters. Be they cucumbers, cauliflower or cauldrons, circular shapes predominate.
Everything is close to the picture planeand the viewer. Though the artist used lots of reds and oranges, greens and yellows, he rarely let one color overwhelm another. Thats probably why, even at their most crowded, these works never feel as chaotic as they might. In Bodegon with Oranges and Walnuts, for example, the painter blends a variety of browns, beiges, tans, and oranges. Melendez seems to have spent more time lighting his scenes than preparing pigments for his palette. He loved painting reflections on the surfaces, edges, and rims of lemons, copper pots, ceramic bowls, plums, and melons. This contributes to their lively character. Melendezs still-lifes got rhythm.
PHYLLIS TUCHMAN publishes regularly in the Smithsonian, Town & Country and other journals.