Luis Meléndez is regarded as one of the greatest still life artists in the European tradition. This beautiful example, which first came to the attention of scholars in 2010, is a superb demonstration of his mastery of the genre. This work, together with the following lot, will be included by Professor Cherry in the forthcoming addendum to his Catalogue Raisonné of the artist’s works.
Both pictures are painted on canvases of small format, of dimensions frequently used by Meléndez. The use of such a canvas size appears to originate with the series of still lifes painted in 1759- 1774 for the New Cabinet of Natural History of Charles, Prince of Asturias, subsequently King Charles IV of Spain (1748-1819). In 1800, this project would be described by the celebrated art historian Ceán Bermúdez as Meléndez’s greatest achievement – it accounts for about onethird of his known still life output, the group is now spread between the Prado, the Patrimonio Nacional and the Museo Nacional de Escultura. The motivation for the project was the Prince’s great passion for natural history. In the chapter of his monograph devoted to the princely commission, Peter Cherry points to the relationship between certain of Meléndez’s paintings and botanical watercolours by Cristobál Vilella, perhaps partly inspired by the former (Luis Meléndez: Still life painter, Madrid, 2006, pp. 193ff.). In Cherry’s words, Meléndez ‘planned to inventory the natural produce of the Spanish peninsula’; the prince’s accounts describe the series as representing ‘the natural history of Spain, that is the depiction of the all the fruits, meats, birds, fish, flowers, foodstuffs and natural produce of these Kingdoms’ (ibid., p. 222). Whether or not the present picture and the following lot were painted for the Prince of Asturias, the same motivation is clearly in evidence: the care and sensitivity with which Meléndez paints this group of objects speaks not only of his affection for the observed world, but also of his fondness for local fare – the cherries and figs of Extremadura, the pears of Mallorca, the plums and grapes and the tinto of Spain.
His rendering of space is masterful: the elements are arranged with deceptive simplicity, brought together to create a sense of natural order and harmony. The geometry of the manmade objects is set off by the irregular contours of the fruit and bread. As in most of Meléndez’s pictures, the light falls from the upper left, highlighting the convex curves and picking out every surface detail. Elements of both compositions, such as the copper pail and the large loaf of bread, or the plate of grapes and pears, feature in other works by the artist in the Prado, Madrid, in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, Barcelona (figs. 1 and 2), and in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Indeed throughout his oeuvre he tends to reprise similar stock parts, which are re-invented and re-worked in different combinations. Each picture though stands alone as an individual creation, part of a grander vision of nature that Meléndez perfected.