The Magazine

Ordinary Art

A new appreciation for the maestro of the commonplace.

Jul 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 42 • By MAUREEN MULLARKEY
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Luis Meléndez

Master of the Spanish Still Life

National Gallery of Art

through August 23

Still life bloomed late among art historical categories. Depictions of prosaic objects have been with us since antiquity, but rarely for their own sake. They served votive purposes or figure compositions submissive to higher themes. Foodstuffs and tableware entered as props for a Last Supper, an edifying banquet, or some festal spread catered by the gods and laced with allegory. Not until the 17th century could the naked facts of a herring, a wine bottle, and a scattering of onions be presented without apology.

What we moderns take for granted as still life lacked even a term for itself until the mid-1600s when stilleven, a matter-of-fact descriptive, started showing up in Dutch inventories. It took another hundred years before the French coined nature morte, a chilly classifier. Spaniards settled upon the homely bodegón, a nod to edible things and the abiding primacy of the kitchen.

Luis Meléndez (1715-1780), one of Spain's greatest still life painters, was the accidental practitioner of a genre just beginning to speak its name. His bodegones, not well known in the United States, are debuting in a traveling exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington. On view are 30 breathtaking transfigurations of the mundane, each one a tribute to the splendor of the overlooked.

The artist's training began in his father's studio. The elder Meléndez, a distinguished painter in the household of Philip V, produced miniature portraits of the royal family for distribution as diplomatic gifts. In addition, he designed illuminated certificates of nobility. (Then, as now, papers mattered.) These were as elaborate as full-sized oil paintings and often combined with religious imagery. Command of the human figure, the capstone of artistic training, was crucial.

The younger Meléndez was among the first to enroll in Philip's fledgling royal academy. Expectations were high for the young artist admitted with the highest marks. His confidence declares itself in the masterful 1746 self-portrait that prefaces the exhibition. Painted in the year of his admittance to the inaugural class, it presents him as a self-possessed caballero. Elegantly dressed, he carries the attributes of a student: a chalk holder (still in use today) and a folio sheet bearing a virtuoso oil rendering of a chalk drawing of a male nude. This drawing-within-the-portrait restates his aptitude for the figure and affirms an equal facility for trompe l'oeil, still life's ancient traveling partner.

His early prospects, intimately aligned with his father's, ran aground on missteps, personality clashes, and plain bad luck. The biographical record, spotty as it is, tells of a proud, ambitious artist gifted in everything but the temperament for advancement within a centralized patronage system. His father, the academy's director of painting, seems to have been a prickly model. Both father and son were soon expelled from the institution, crippling young Meléndez's opportunities for the major figurative projects his talent promised.

Unbowed, the artist reinvented himself as a still life painter. And what a stunning job he made of it. His singular mastery of a minor genre became the vehicle for his eventual breakthrough into court patronage under the prince of Asturias, later Charles IV. In 1771, the prince invited Meléndez to produce an encyclopedic collection of paintings of seasonal foods produced on Spanish soil--a natural history of agricultural Spain.

Meléndez combined rigorous structural design, thematic wit, and a quiet yielding to the facts of a meal. For all their ecstatic detail and horticultural veracity, these works are more than close-range quotations from the world. They are also exquisite enactments of a compelling artistic conscience. Melén-
dez's orchestrations of kitchen produce, executed in loving fidelity to naturalist concerns, are woven with cues that lend resonance to verisimilitude.

At a glance, Still Life with Game (c. 1770) is a straightforward tabletop piece. Two dead pigeons lie in front of the copper kettle that waits to braise them. But the turn of their bodies, entwined with unnatural delicacy, telegraphs extra-culinary intention. The downy head of one bird rests sweetly, as if in caress, within the soft hollow of its companion's upturned neck. The staging suggests a tragic couple. (Melén-
dez's audience would have known the legendary doomed lovers of Teruel, Spain's own Tristan and Iseult.)