- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 24, 2009

Piles of plump cucumbers, juicy watermelons and ripe tomatoes fill the paintings by little-known Spanish artist Luis Melendez to advertise nature’s bounty. A feast of these works, dating from 1760 to 1774, can be savored at the National Gallery of Art where a small exhibition makes a strong case for Melendez as a master of the still life.

His pictures of raw vegetables, fruits and meats, arranged around ordinary kitchenware, are much plainer than better-known 17th-century Dutch paintings of floral bouquets and sumptuous banquets. Melendez’s spare, deliberate compositions, unusual for the 18th century, convey an almost modern appeal.

Like the 20th-century Italian artist Giorgio Morandi, Melendez drew on stock items from his own household — copper pots, ceramic jugs, wooden casks — that he obsessively shifted into various configurations on tabletops. Examples of these 18th-century vessels are part of the exhibit to allow for comparisons between the real objects and the artist’s skill in accurately representing their worn surfaces.

Melendez’s greatest talent was depicting the colors and textures of his subjects with convincing realism. He meticulously rendered the specific attributes of fruits and vegetables such as a cantaloupe’s reticulated skin with the observational detachment of a botanist.

This ability led Spain’s Prince of Asturias, who became King Charles IV, to commission 44 paintings by the artist for his new natural history museum in the royal palace. Depicting the food produced in the Spanish climate, the series was meant to represent the four seasons in its gastronomic themes. A still life featuring a pot of hot chocolate — one of the more unusual compositions in the exhibit — evokes winter, while a painting of jellied fruit and a bottle of chilled wine symbolizes summer.

Nine of these royally commissioned works, all presented in neoclassical gold frames, are on exhibit along with 22 other loans from American and European collections, including two paintings from Teresa Heinz Kerry.

Most were painted by Melendez when he was in his 50s. Only then did the ambitious artist come to embrace the still-life genre, which was considered a lowly art in his day.

Born in 1715 to a family of artists, Melendez studied to be a portraitist in the Madrid studio of Louis-Michel van Loo, a Frenchman who worked for the Spanish court. The exhibit proves Melendez’s early skill in this type of painting by including a confident self-portrait at age 31. Grasping a chalk holder in one hand and a drawing of a male nude in the other, the artist’s proud likeness reflects the same attention to detail that characterizes his later still-life paintings.

After his apprenticeship, Melendez attended the royal art academy co-founded by his artist father, Francisco Antonio Melendez. In 1748, father and son were expelled from the school for a dispute with the administration and the younger Melendez soon took off for Rome and Naples.

While traveling, he probably saw Italian paintings of still lifes set into landscapes and gardens that would later influence his own paintings of fruits and vegetables placed on rocky hillsides.

Returning to Madrid in 1753, Melendez worked with his father on choir-book miniatures and completed his earliest known still life. He repeatedly tried to become a royal painter, but all four of his petitions to the king were denied.

In 1771, the artist received the commission from Prince Charles III to create the still-life paintings for the royal palace, but the assignment only lasted five years. Melendez died a pauper in 1780 and his work was soon forgotten.

Only in recent decades have studies by scholars and conservators resuscitated his reputation. In organizing the current exhibit, curator Gretchen Hirschauer and conservator Catherine Metzger investigated the artist’s technique along with his subject matter. They show how he often recycled his canvases to paint a still life over a portrait or change the elements of a scene.

An X-ray of “Still Life With Figs and Bread,” a work acquired by the National Gallery in 2000 and the impetus for this exhibition, reveals a plate full of berries and a wedge of cheese under the painted surface.

Once satisfied with the depiction of an object, Melendez sometimes traced the same motif in chalk onto another canvas, then added different elements to create a new composition. The limp bodies of paired birds in “Still Life With Pigeons, Onions, Bread, and Kitchen Utensils” are identical to those in the earlier work “Still Life With Game.”

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