April 22, 2010

Luis Melendez

Melendez, Still life with Small Pears and White Pitcher, 1760, oil on canvas, 19 x 14 inches

Melendez, Still life with Bread, Grapes, Jug and Receptacles, 1770, oil on canvas, 19 x 14 inches

Yesterday I went on an outing with a few friends: a day trip to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to see the exhibition "Luis Melendez: Master of the Spanish Still Life". Since I visited the Prado Museum in Madrid over 20 years ago, Spanish still life painting of the 17th century, with its clear form, dramatic light, and rigorous composition, has been among my favorite art. Working a century later than the greats of the 'golden age' such as Sanchez Cotan and van der Hamen, Melendez pushed his objects out towards the viewer, and they seem to burst with a fullness of life; the illusion, the precision, and the carefully wrought compositions make the work seem very modern to me.

I enjoyed seeing all the paintings, but I thought the most successful were the small vertical compositions in which the mundane things of the kitchen were essential actors in an intense drama, held by the edges of the canvas; objects are rendered with sensual attention, imperfections adding to character. Each thing proclaims itself, and becomes luscious, asking for a touch, as though it was a sexual being.

Melendez, Still life with Melon and Pears, 1772, oil on canvas, 25 x 33 inches

Even in this more complex composition, every object has a powerful presence; the artist has managed to paint each texture––the netting on a melon, a woven basket, an earthenware dish––without losing the sense of weight and volume; that melon is heavy.

Melendez, Still Life with Oranges, Honey Pots, and Boxes of Sweets, 1760-65, oil on canvas, 19 x 14 inches

So, is this painting of oranges one of the sexiest you've ever seen? it is to me. In making this work, Melendez used one of Velasquez's tricks to make forms more lifelike: soften the edges so that they become a little indeterminate, replicating how our two eyes see around things. Some of the softness might have come from Melendez's moving the objects in the paintings to improve the compositions. He had a strange way of working: not setting up an entire still life, but starting with one object in front, then adding one after another until his design was complete. X rays show many adjustments under the final painting.

Melendez, Still Life with Watermelon and Apples in a Landscape, 1771, 25 x 33 inches

I love this painting, not for its ambition, but because of its juicy physicality. Looking at this work, it's hard not to have a memory of eating watermelon in summer, juice dripping down your chin. It calls up the texture of melon flesh and the smoothness of seeds, a visual delight telling of sensual pleasures.


  1. what gets me is the light - it's cold! singular. bracing. unforgiving. somehow the quality is not like the electric spotlights we have today. what do you think? and what a peculiar way to work - adding the objects one by one. did he always work this way?

  2. I'm going back to the Prado today, Altoon, and will look for Melendez--though probably all of his work is currently in this show! When I paint large still life, I also add objects as I go. It's an invented composition, more theatrical and controllable that the normal tabletop set-up. Also, fruit doesn't rot if you're working one piece or two at a time.

  3. Thinking about the light in these paintings, for me it's less that it's cold than its drama showing the hard details is relentless. When I was at the museum I went upstairs to look at their two Chardin still lifes and the contrast was fascinating. Here are two artists using the same subject matter, but with Chardin I was conscious of a quality of breath and palpable life, while with Melendez there was physical presence.

    How interesting that you work in the same piece by piece way, Susan. How odd that I never thought of that. It does seem that Melendez worked this way all the time.

  4. The pictures are everything you say — but only because your own text helped me to see it. You are such a beautiful writer.