Luís Meléndez: Still Life with Oranges, Honey Pot, Box of Sweetmeats and Watermelons; courtesy Wikipedia, here

The Luís Meléndez (1716-1780) exhibition in the National Gallery, Dublin, is Ireland’s latest and greatest Spanish import, fresh from its stay in the Prado, Madrid.  This exhibition follows the National Gallery’s New Frontiers exhibition and claims Meléndez to be “the greatest Spanish still life painter of the eighteenth century."  If this is true then it is also tragic.

Meléndez came from a prominent Spanish artistic family, and he was trained by his father Francisco.  The two men were the first generation of Spanish artists to enjoy the establishment of a National Academy, San Fernando, in 1752. The Acacemy was progressive in that it not only tolerated but encouraged the ‘lesser’ genres, including still life.  However, this opportunity was marred by a petty quarrel; Francisco and Luís  publicly ridiculed the Director General of the Academy and were expelled.  Unlike his father, Luís’ professional status was precarious. Young and self-righteous, he now lacked the support of the Academy and his reputation suffered.  The tragedy of his art is that he was forced into a career of still lifes, a decorative genre which could be produced without commission and was therefore lucrative for artists without royal patronage or the support of the Academy.

This exhibition divides the forty still lifes (from his entire oeuvre of approximately one hundred, produced between 1759 and 1778) into five stages of Meléndez’ development, each stage being detectable if the viewer pays close attention to the compositional changes in the works. Despite the mundane subject matter, Meléndez’ observational and technical skills are clear.

The first section shows his earliest works, dating from around 1760.  The canvases are small, and the compositions are relatively crowded and punctuated by colour.  Meléndez, like Zurbarán and Sánchez Cotan in the previous century, studies light effects, texture and  the colour of fruit and vegetables as well as the earthenware, glass and copper pots beside which the fruit is displayed.  Unlike the seventeenth-century masters, however, his subject matter is presented physically closer to the viewer, at a lower vantage point, encouraging the viewer to study the objects for themselves.  This exploration was in keeping with the growing spirit of Enlightenment and the king’s interest in natural history.

In 1760 Meléndez’ petition for the position of court painter was refused, despite the calibre of these early works.

The second section shows larger canvases with a greater depth in the dark background.  Meléndez began exploring not just the object but also the space that surrounds it.  The third section develops the idea of spatial surroundings, where Meléndez launches his fruit and vegetables into a typically Spanish landscape.  This type of painting was developed in Naples, where the artist stayed from 1748 to 1752.  These canvases contain only fresh produce. Meléndez omits man-made objects, and the rotund contents are off-set by violent blue lighting and the strong diagonals of the skyline (catalogue numbers 26 and 27 should be viewed as a pair).

The fourth and fifth rooms show the final, most meditative period of the artist’s career.  Instead of abundance, Meléndez’ late compositions consist of less objects more carefully placed.  Still life with salmon, lemon and kitchen utensils is testament to the artist’s technical merit.  Despite several glazes, the white highlights are still clear and the fine red lines applied on the pale pink are evident yet convincing as part of the scheme.   The canvases are all in fine condition, due in part to the Prado’s high quality of conservation, as well as Meléndez’ technical skill.

Two sets of similar canvases have been paired along the left wall (Cat. nos. 37 & 38, and 39 & 40). They are on loan from both the Prado and the Masaveu collections. They invite the viewer to explore the methods of the artist, who borrows foreground features from one composition to the next without appearing formulaic.  Indeed the whole exhibition is designed to increase the viewer’s awareness to Meléndez’ depth and range, despite his restrictive and somewhat banal subject matter, and to bring the viewer perhaps to question what could have been, had the artist not alienated his greatest allies at such a young age.

The Gallery provides coherent information throughout the exhibition on citrus-coloured signs, and the catalogue is both well illustrated and well priced at 35 euro, with articles by the show’s organisers, Dr Peter Cherry and Dr Juan Luna.  The exhibition’s only shortcoming is that the works themselves appear out of place on the sterile modern walls, when their original function was to draw the glances and stimulate the senses of merchants and princes in their eighteenth-century banquet halls.  Bear this in mind and enjoy.

Isobel Harbison has just finished a degree in art history in Trinity College Dublin.