LOS ANGELES, CA.- 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 Meléndezmany 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. LACMAs 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 from September 27, 2009 through January 3, 2010.
Although recognition of Meléndez has been eclipsed over the centuries by that of fellow Spaniard Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Meléndezs 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 artists meticulous approach to rendering still lifes. Meléndezs acute realism and the austerity of his compositions anticipate aspects of modern art, demonstrating a sensibility that resonates even today.
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 his Luis were expelled from the Academyan event that significantly damaged the sons prospects for a successful academic career. Indeed, Meléndezs 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 painters 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 Meléndezs 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 wooden-handled 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 Meléndezs more usual set-ups on wooden tabletops in dark, undefined interiors.
Luis Meléndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life was organized at the National Gallery of Art, Washington by Gretchen A. Hirschauer, associate curator of Italian and Spanish paintings, and Catherine A. Metzger, senior conservator. The LACMA showing of this exhibition will be organized by J. Patrice Marandel, The Robert H. Ahmanson Chief Curator of European Art. Before its presentation at LACMA, the exhibition opened at the National Gallery of Art (May 17August 23, 2009). The exhibition will complete its tour at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (February 1May 9, 2010).