This compelling still life, presented in outstanding condition, is a masterpiece from the maturity of the Spanish still life painter Luis Meléndez. One of the most original Spanish painters of his day, he is now regarded as one of the greatest still life painters of the European artistic tradition.
Ironically, Meléndez's unique contribution to the still life genre was the product of accident rather than design. He trained as a miniature painter with his father but aimed to become a history painter as is made clear in his Self Portrait at the Age of Thirty, 1746, (fig. 1; Louvre, Paris) where he depicts himself proudly showing off one of his own figure drawings. Unfortunately his father quarrelled with the Academy, leading to Meléndez's own expulsion from the institution and a period of independent study in Naples. Although this must have been a bitter blow to the ambitions of the young painter, and had far reaching ramifications on the course of his subsequent career, it also set him on a unique artistic path and brought him into contact with the tenebresque art of the Neapolitan school, which later informed his own intense artistic vision. Meléndez returned to Spain in the 1750s to work on the much admired miniature decorations for the Royal Choir Books of King Ferdinand IV but by 1760, no longer employed by the Court and with no influential patrons, he is recorded as living in poverty and obscurity. Meléndez probably hoped that the succession of Charles III the same year might result in his longed for career break, especially as he and the new monarch shared a connection to Naples, the latter having ruled there for twenty years before ascending the Spanish throne. The arrival at the Spanish Court of the portraitist Anton Raphael Mengs in 1761 did indeed lead to a sea change in the artistic establishment but Meléndez proved too old to profit from Mengs's patronage and remained an outsider for the rest of his artistic career. This relative isolation became the source of both bitter personal disappointment but also of artistic originality. From this period Meléndez had to rely on the open market for a living and from 1760-80 operated virtually alone as the main still life painter in Madrid.
The relatively large body of Meléndez's extant work (over 100 paintings) demonstrates the contemporary demand for his pictures. His still lifes, like the present picture, are very difficult to date as he had already emerged as a mature exponent of the genre in 1760 and displayed very little stylistic variation in works produced later. He seems to have poured all his frustrated artistic ambition into his still lifes, investing them with a seriousness and monumentality that recall the bodegones of Velázquez. Something of his high purpose can be gathered from his dedication of Still Life with Partridges, Condiments and Kitchen Utensils (Juan Abelló Collection, Madrid) to God and the Virgin Mary. The fact that he describes himself as the inventor or 'creator' of the image stresses its status as a carefully conceived artistic invention, more than a mere mechanical copy of nature, every bit as conceptually ambitious as the work of a history painter or a portraitist. In 1771 he received the major commission of his career from the Prince of Asturias, the future Carlos IV, to decorate his cabinet of natural curiosities with still lifes referring to the natural history of Spain; depicting all the different types of comestibles produced by the Spanish climate and seasons. The Enlightenment spirit of Scientific Enquiry is evoked in the pictures through their combination of the products of Nature: fruit, vegetables and animals; and the products of Man: pottery, utensils and containers (Prado, Madrid). At the same time the paintings recall the witty conceit that the still lifes themselves are a product of the ingenuity and skill of the artist, part of whose power to convince the viewer lies in his acute observation and reproduction of nature. The series was cancelled in 1776 after 41 pictures had been delivered, but Meléndez, according to contemporaries, remained convinced of his own worth and that of his paintings as is reflected in the relatively high prices he charged for them: a small canvas, such as present picture, cost 1500 reales, a medium canvas 3000 reales and a large work 4200 reales. Meléndez worked alone and did not use studio assistants to produce workshop versions of his pictures, which might have increased his revenue but would have debased his reputation. At the same time he continued to petition unsuccessfully for the position of Royal Painter to Carlos IV, while producing work for the open market, but survival cannot have been easy as he was declared a pauper on his death in 1780 (see National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, Luis Meléndez, Still Lifes, 2004, pp. 1-22).
Oranges, Nuts, Spices, Boxes of Sweetmeats, Jug and Cask on a table is an exquisite example of Meléndez's prime artistic concerns. It is extraordinary how much focus, intensity and drama Meléndez is able to convey in a small rectangle of canvas that purportedly deals with such a humble subject. The means by which he does this are primarily aesthetic and demonstrate his constant striving towards technical perfection, whether in the convincing material rendering of individual objects or in their perfectly controlled juxtaposition and composition. In this picture we see a distinctive, limited repertoire of traditional still life objects, carefully positioned on a well-worn wooden table top, viewed from close range and from a low viewpoint in a narrow picture space against a dark background. Normally one would view such objects dispersed across a table and from above, so the effect of seeing them in such proximity invests them with an arresting sense of monumentality at odds with their humble origins. Setting the objects in a shallow space against a dark wall also makes them seem more luminous as they register more strongly in their illusionistic volume and chromatic intensity. Meléndez subtly illuminates the right side of the background more than the left in order to create a tonal counterpoint in which the strongly lit sweetmeat boxes on the left are set against a darker background, while the more shaded forms of the olive cask and background oranges seem to detach themselves from the lighter background on the right. Focus is further intensified by the dramatic raking light falling from the left, which defines the objects in a strong three-dimensional relief of differing tones and shadows. A sense of confinement is also introduced through the compositional massing of the objects that occupy almost the entire picture, and by the way the artist has cut through the objects at either end of the composition, allowing no space between them and the edge of the picture. The table edge, meanwhile, performs an important illusionistic function as it describes the picture plane, while the white paper twist of spices, balancing precariously on its edge, by seeming to project beyond, gives the illusion of connecting the real space of the viewer with the fictive space of the picture.
The sense of monumentality is further underlined by Meléndez's architectonic and geometric approach to composition. There is great structural lucidity in the way the artist boldly establishes the formal and spatial relationships between the objects and structural logic in the placement of small objects, like nuts, in the foreground anchored by larger objects like the pitcher and cask in the background. Meanwhile, the spherical forms of the oranges on the right satisfyingly counterbalance the angular boxes of sweetmeats on the left of the composition, while the vertical columnar nature of pitcher and olive cask seem to root the composition in the horizontal of the tabletop. Perspective is used not just for reasons of spatial coherence but also to dramatize the role of the objects in the composition. The sweetmeat boxes, for example, have been artfully arranged in studied disarray, conveying recession into depth through the play of light across their angled sides, and an impression of instability in their precarious placement. The way in which the middle box sits on the box on the right but merely projects into the space above the box on the left, leaving a thin area of shadow beneath, is particularly brilliantly observed, for example. Instability, and thereby an atmosphere of suspense, is also implied in the meeting of the spherical forms of the oranges with the hard surface of the table and in the twist of spices balanced on the table edge.
One of the major traditional challenges of still life painting was the imitation of nature and in this Meléndez again excelled. Indeed his technical skill in conveying a convincing sense of the material textures and physical presence of objects is here shown to be quite breathtaking. The strong formal presence of the oranges, for example, is emphasized by the studied modulation of light and shade modelling their forms while the uneven surface texture of their waxy peel is suggested in small loaded brush strokes. This is particularly evident in the foreground orange, second from the right, which glows with colour, intensifying to a blob of orangey-cream impasto highlight where it catches the light. Interestingly the painting's sombre chromatic range, mainly restricted to a palette of earth tones, seems to make the illusion of verisimilitude all the more intense and convincing. Where the picture departs from this tonality, in the depiction of the white paper twist of spices, the artist ensures a virtuoso display of modelling in subtle tones of grey through to white to convey a vivid impression of the texture of paper wrapped tightly around an object, securely folded over at one end but beginning to slowly unfold at the other.
Meléndez's candour in representing the material imperfections of objects and their well-worn character, the potting flaws evident in the terracotta pitcher, the nicks in the wood of the table top, the splits in the edges of the cask, further serve to convince us of their reality and intriguingly to imply their human usage over time. The depiction of the jug handle, for example, arching forward into space, conveys a clear sense, in its irregular form with a slight depression in the middle, of how it had been hand-molded to allow easier handling. The extremely high levels of verisimilitude may also have been aided by the artist's familiarity with the objects depicted, fixed in his visual memory from repetition, as they recur as stock elements across a series of paintings. Still lifes by Meléndez in the National Gallery, London, the Prado, Madrid, and the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, for example, all contain objects seen in the present picture, albeit in different combinations and to strikingly different compositional effect.
There is an almost fetishistic level of observation, too, in Meléndez's depiction of the splintery thin layers of rough wood used to make the sweetmeat boxes. Dabs of yellowy-beige paint indicate where the rough surfaces catch the light along the grain of the wood and are again used to highlight the crumbling edges of the boxes illuminated from the left. The meticulous rendering of the knots, imperfections and even the slightly pointed head of a nail are almost uncanny in their hyperrealism, pre-figuring the surrealism of Dali by over a hundred years. The incorporation of Meléndez's signature, in monogram, into the fiction of the still life provides telling evidence of his self-identification with the illusionistic power of his art and his pride at his ability. The 'CA' below the monogram probably refers to the town of Cadiz, from which we can infer that the boxes probably contained Alfajores, a traditional Arab sweetmeat famous in Andalucia, and most prominently in Cadiz, made from flour, honey, almonds and spices, most commonly sold around Christmas. Indeed taken together with the oranges and nuts the still life may be said to represent the dessert foods of Christmas, conveying a potent sense of the tastes and celebratory connotations of the festive season.
Not only was Meléndez's achievement as a still life painter unique in Spain in the eighteenth century, but he also prefigured many of the developments of modern painting by more than a century. By combining and recombining objects in ever more refined compositional variations he aimed at an artistic purity and perfection that would renew the experience of painting both for the artist and for the viewer. His choice of kitchen utensils and fruits as vehicles for representational skill and compositional value, freed him to concentrate upon the more purely formal aspects of his art. In this he prefigures the achievement of still life painters such as Cézanne who, in wanting 'to make of impressionism something solid and lasting like the art in museums', pursued a similar solid, almost architectural approach to still life composition, concentrated around simple forms and colour planes (fig. 2). Meléndez came into his own in modern times in the wake of developments in Impressionism and Post Impressionism where still life became an expressive mode for some of the most creative artists, which in turn demonstrated the irrelevance of the academic hierarchy from which Meléndez's reputation had suffered. Meléndez, whose artistic ambitions were thwarted during his lifetime would have been gratified to see the admiration which his extraordinary achievement as a still life painter elicited in the major exhibitions of his work held at the Prado, Madrid, and the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin in 2004. The ultimate value of his work, as demonstrated with such artistic brio in Oranges, nuts and spices, boxes of sweetmeats, jug and cask on a table, is aesthetic. It resides in his virtuosic imitation and transformation of humble everyday objects into the realms of art where they might, in the words of Keats, 'Tease us out of thought as doth eternity'.