The National Gallery’s show of Spain’s master of the still life, the Wall Street Journal reminded us last week, should not obscure the fact that his career was one of disappointment and unfulfilled ambition:
That Luis Meléndez (1715-1780) is acclaimed as 18th-century Spain’s greatest still-life painter might have surprised and depressed this prize-winner at Madrid’s Royal Academy of Arts. Expelled from the Academy with his artist father for disputes with the administration, he spent years unsuccessfully seeking royal favor. Denied commissions and royal appointments, he painted miniatures and still lifes, achieving a virtuosity at rendering textures, hues and the play of light that eventually, in 1771, attracted the notice of the Prince of Asturias and his wife.
At age 56, Meléndez was commissioned to paint a series of still lifes depicting “the four seasons of the Year . . . with every species of food produced by the Spanish climate” for the New Cabinet of Natural History in the Royal Palace. The commission at last produced something like the success Meléndez sought all his life, but it was canceled at the end of 1776. Meléndez appears to have done no work after that, and four years later, declaring himself a pauper, he died.
Through Aug. 23, visitors to the National Gallery can study Meléndez’s response to blighted hopes in 30 still lifes — including nine intended for the Prince of Asturias — executed between 1760 and 1774, plus an optimistic self-portrait of the artist at age 31.
The Fruits of His Labor (Wall Street Journal)