Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid.
This week’s virtual trip to the museum continues to trace the history of still-life painting. It recalls an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in 2009 on a contemporary of Goya who became one of the the great still-life painters. The 2009 exhibition was on Luis Meléndez.
Denied a position as a court painter like Goya, Meléndez took up still-life painting. He chose a modest scale, as the New York Times noted in its review, none of the paintings is larger than two feet by three feet. The Times summarized his life:
“Meléndez was not an easygoing man, but he was well prepared for his vocation. His father, Francisco Antonio Meléndez, was a famous painter of miniature manuscript illuminations, and he employed Luis and his other children as assistants. Father and son both taught at the provisional royal academy of art in Madrid, which Francisco Antonio helped found, but they were both fired as a result of administrative and faculty political conflicts. The younger Meléndez’s ornery temper may be a reason he never got the royal appointment he so longed for.
“He did achieve renown during his lifetime for his still lifes, partly as a result of one major commission. In 1771 Charles III, Prince of Asturias (later King Charles IV), contracted him to create a series of still lifes for the New Cabinet of Natural History in the royal palace. The series was to represent the four seasons, as the artist described it, “with the aim of composing an amusing cabinet with every species of food produced by the Spanish climate.”
“Meléndez had produced 44 paintings over a five-year period when, in 1776, the project was canceled. (Nine works from the Asturias commission are in the National Gallery show.) Four years later he declared himself a legal pauper, and he died shortly after that, leaving to posterity what the art historian and catalog essayist Peter Cherry calls “the fruits of his failure, which are among the most brilliant of their kind ever painted.”
This painting is on display at the Prado, and is part of the series for the Prince of Asturias. Maybe one day we will be able return to Europe and see it in person. The Prado site describes the painting:
“The works sober composition is executed in a manner that brings out its author’s virtuosity: solid drawing, rich colors and a perfectionist realism that extends to even the smallest details. The arrangement of these splendid fruits is orderly and clear, eschewing a facile decorativeness in favor of a concretion heightened by the fine contrast of light and shadows. Though generally fond of neutral backgrounds, Meléndez opts for a summary landscape in this work, making it a rare and original image that recalls the landscapes in his illustrations of the beautiful pages of the Royal Chapel’s choir books.
“The outdoor setting and the peculiar overall construction recall Neapolitan still lifes, which this artist may have seen in Italy or as a result of his familiarity with works from that school in Madrid. The fleshy and juice-filled watermelons are rendered with reddish bases heightened by touches of whites, pinks, yellows and reds whose different mixtures and degrees of impasto create a variety of nuances in their endocarp, from the denser flesh to the moistest parts whose transparent drops of juice drip on the ground. The passage between the two apples in the immediate foreground is very delicate indeed, with the fallen seeds, drops of juice and tiny bits of watermelon flesh. And the artist’s rendering of the apples is no less meticulous. His fine eye leads him to specify the smallest details—the tiny rotted spots, the highlights and their ripeness—with small touches of vermillion, red lacquer and various earth tones that mix and combine with the yellow color of their skin. At the same time, he locates each on in the pictorial space by its degree of treatment and how the skin is finished.”
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