The son and pupil of the portrait miniaturist Francisco Antonio Meléndez, Luis (fig. 1) was born in Naples, but moved to Madrid where he became assistant to Louis-Michel van Loo, court painter to King Philip V. He was one of the first students to be accepted into the new, provisional Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. After another stay in Naples, he returned to Madrid to assist on a commission to paint choir-books for the new Royal Chapel. It was in the 1760s that Luis became a specialist in painting still lifes, of which about one hundred survive. Forty-five of these were used to decorate the walls of the Palacio Real in Aranjuez, the King's summer residence outside Madrid.
Employing a style that looked to both Neapolitan still-life painting and the work of the 17th Century Spanish pioneers in the genre, such as Francisco de Zurbarán and Juan Sánchez Cotán, Meléndez to a greater degree than anyone before him, emphasized in his work the solidity and texture of the fruit, vegetables and objects that he chose to depict, usually setting his compositions against a dark or neutral background and modelled by a strong, almost Caravaggesque, light. These still lifes are often arranged on wooden tables, and Meléndez delights in showing the nicks of the table's edge and the knots on it's wooden surface which are delineated in a dark color and highlighted by touches of light brown impasto. In this he differs from the other great European artists of the time specializing in still life, such as Jean-Siméon Chardin, who concentrated more on the decorative surface of a picture, employing a lighter and wider range of palette. His acutely observed play of light and shadow, powerfully modelled forms and beautiful (if seemingly random) placement of objects serve to bind together his compositions into a balanced, harmonious whole, of unprecedented monumentality.
In the 1995 Spanish Still Life exhibition at the National Gallery, London, Dr. William B. Jordan and Dr. Peter Cherry write that Meléndez 'made use of things he owned, often repeating these objects in different contexts' (Spanish Still Life from Velázquez to Goya, National Gallery, London, 1995, pp. 156-7). Thus, for example, in the present work, the dish on which the arbutus berries appear is repeated in other compositions such as the Still life with fruit, cheese and containers in the Prado, Madrid (see W.B. Jordan and P. Cherry, op.cit., p. 158, no. 56, illustrated), and in the still life sold, Christie's, London, 10 December 2003, lot 70 (£1,125,250 = $1,935,430). An almost identical olive barrel can be seen in his Still life of plums, figs, bread and several vessels, also in the Prado, Madrid.
Meléndez, like his 17th Century predecessors, was also extraordinarily inventive at rearranging the basic repertory of forms in his paintings. Thus, certain objects in the present work reappear in different guises and different shapes in other paintings of his - the bread roll in particular must have been a favorite motif, as it recurs several times, often as a tour de force of realism. In the present work, the bread roll extends forward over the table's edge, jutting out of the picture plane, creating a strong diagonal and acting as a repoussoir within the composition. Meléndez uses the same compositional device in his Still life of meat, earthenware dishes, copper kettle and bread, private collection, Germany (see E.M. Tufts, Luis Meléndez: Spanish Still-Life Painter of the Eighteenth Century, Dallas, Texas, Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University, January-September 1985, p. 19, illustrated), and in the Still life with jug, bread and basket in the Prado, Madrid (ibid., p. 70, no. 9).
It is highly likely that Goya may have studied Meléndez's bodegones, either in the Royal collections or in any of the private houses he frequented. Given the insular artistic milieu in Madrid, he may even have known Meléndez, who died there, impoverished, in 1780. Certainly, many elements in Meléndez's paintings can be found in Goya's still lifes, even though they were radically transformed by Goya's very personal style. As far as we know, Goya only painted twelve still lifes, all of which date from the period 1808-12, when the artist was over sixty years old. As noted by W.B. Jordan and P. Cherry in the 1995 Spanish Still Life exhibition, these paintings 'represent a rupture with tradition as abrupt and shocking as that produced by any aspect of his work' (op.cit., p.175). As different as Goya's still lifes are from those of Meléndez in their expressiveness, the rigorous structural sense of their compositions and their chromatic richness reflect the legacy of the earlier artist, whose forty-five still lifes, painted for Charles III and hanging at Aranjuez, Goya must have seen.
Like Meléndez, Goya used neutral backgrounds. However, Goya's portrayal of nature is altogether different, more threatening and sinister. All but one of Goya's still lifes represent dead animals, and they represent physical manifestations of his preoccupation with violence and death (see, for example, the Still life of dead hares sold in these Rooms, 24 January 2003, lot 136 ($5,069,500). Meléndez, on the other hand, paints mostly inanimate objects, revealing instead their every detail in a coherent and scientifically valid manner, striving for an authentic sense of verisimilitude that is both static and solemn. However, in both artists there is a level of expressive intensity and obsessiveness that anticipates the work of artists such as Courbet and Cézanne in the 19th Century and Matisse, Picasso, and Braque in the 20th Century. In Picasso's Pitcher, candle, casserole of 1945 in the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (fig. 2), one can see the same sense of dignity and austerity that is distinctly reminiscent of Meléndez in its restraint and ordered composition. Picasso said of his own work at this time 'The objects that go into my paintings are common objects from anywhere. I want to tell something by means of the most common object; for example, a casserole, any old casserole, the one everybody knows. For me it is a vessel in the metaphoric sense, just like Christ's use of parables'. Picasso could have been refering to a Meléndez still life, and in the present paining it is tempting to see the bread roll as a premonition of The Last Supper.
Dr. Cherry will include the present painting in his forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.