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Luis Meléndez at LACMA
Master of the Spanish Still Life
PRESS RELEASE Los Angeles—The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) presents Luis Meléndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life, the first U.S. exhibition in twenty-five years of eighteenth-century Spanish painter Luis Meléndez (1715-1780). Meléndez is now recognized not only as one of the greatest Spanish painters of the eighteenth century, but also as one of the most accomplished still life painters of the time. Drawing works from major American and European museums as well as private collections, the exhibition will showcase nearly thirty paintings by Meléndez—many of which have never been exhibited before. In addition, a selection of eighteenth century Spanish kitchenware, similar to those used by the artist as studio props, will be featured. LACMA’s presentation will be the only West Coast showing of Luis Meléndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life and will be on view on the third floor of the Ahmanson Building through January 3, 2010.
Although recognition of Meléndez has been eclipsed over the centuries by that of fellow Spaniard Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Meléndez’s work has received increasing attention from scholars and collectors in recent years. Modern scholarship of his work, including extensive technical examination, has taken on new momentum in the last few decades, providing insight into the artist’s meticulous approach to rendering still lifes.
Meléndez’s acute realism and the austerity of his compositions anticipate aspects of modern art, demonstrating a sensibility that resonates even today.
About the Artist
Luis Meléndez was born in Naples, Italy into a family of artists. He was initially trained in the art of miniature painting by his father, Francisco Antonio. The artist began his career with great promise, studying at the provisional Royal Academy in Madrid, an institution that his father helped to found. Yet in 1748, after Francisco Antonio publicized his disagreements with the Academy, both he and Luis were expelled from the Academy—an event that significantly damaged the son’s prospects for a successful academic career. Indeed, Meléndez’s aspirations for public recognition, particularly for the prestigious position of painter to the King, were never met with success.
However, in 1771 Meléndez received a commission from Charles, Prince of Asturias (later King Charles IV), and his wife, Princess Maria Luisa, to paint an extensive series of still lifes for the New Cabinet of Natural History in the Royal Palace. The royal commission, a central event in the painter’s life, led to modest success with other patrons, though it was cancelled abruptly in 1776. Meléndez died shortly after declaring himself a pauper in 1780, and his reputation sank into relative obscurity.
Nine of the still lifes from the royal commission, which come from the Prado Museum, will be on view in the exhibition. Meléndez however, had not always viewed himself as a painter of still lifes. His extraordinary Self-Portrait (1746), which will be on loan from the Louvre Museum, exhibits his ambition to succeed in the more elevated genre of portrait and history painting. In his portrait, Meléndez represents himself as a painter of figures, not still lifes. His haughty expression and the simple elegance of his figure set against a plain background give the portrait a commanding immediacy. The work has been recognized as one of the most engaging self-portraits of the eighteenth century.
Common kitchenware, a selection of which will also be on view, often served as props in Meléndez’s paintings, reappearing in individual paintings, and rearranged or juxtaposed with different edibles, including fruits, vegetables, or cheese. In Still Life with Bread, Bottle, and Jug(c. 1770) and Still Life with Bread, Grapes, Jug, and Receptacles (c.1770), the bread, a ceramic jug with a broken plate as a lid, and woodenhandled utensils are arranged identically, except the viewpoint has shifted. Although the paintings share motifs, each one is strikingly inventive.
The exhibition also includes several still lifes from the Prado Museum which are set against rocky landscapes (Still Life with Watermelons and Apples in a Landscape, 1771; Still Life with Pomegranates, Apples, Azaroles, and Grapes in a Landscape, 1771). These original, even eccentric works mark a stark departure from Meléndez’s more usual set-ups on wooden tabletops in dark, undefined interiors.
As I've mentioned in an earlier post, I found myself very drawn to the amazing still life works by Meléndez when I visited the Prado Museum a couple of years ago. I am really looking forward to seeing this exhibition, particularly the paintings that have not been exhibited previously. I plan to go soon and I'll report back when I do, but wanted to pass on this news right away. If you live in the Los Angeles area or will be traveling here during this time period I encourage you to take advantage of this opportunity!