Luis Meléndez came from a family of painters from Oviedo in Asturias. His father Francisco (1682–1758) spent two decades in Naples (where Luis was born in 1716) and following his return to Madrid was appointed official miniaturist painter to Charles III in 1725. Luis’ uncle Miguel Jacinto Meléndez (1679–1734) worked as a portrait painter in the employ of Philip V. Luis received his initial training under his father, producing miniature royal portraits in jewels and bracelets that were used as gifts for envoys and ambassadors, before entering the workshop Louis Michel van Loo (1707–1771), a French artist, who was the official court painter to Philip V, the first of the Bourbon Kings of Spain.
Meléndez’s development into an accomplished portrait painter is attested to by his remarkably assured self-portrait, today in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, which he painted in 1747 (fig. 1). The following year, however, he was expelled from the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid (which he had entered following its inauguration in 1744) as a result of a dispute between his father – an honorary director – and the Director of the Academy. With his aspirations to become a court painter in Madrid severely undermined by this quarrel, Meléndez decided to leave for Italy, and resided in Naples and Rome until 1752, where he painted some works (now lost) for Charles VI of Naples, the future Charles III of Spain.
Following Meléndez’s return to Spain he painted a variety of subjects, including religious works, but subsequent to his rejection for the position of court painter in 1760 he turned in earnest to the genre of still-life painting, a field in which artists without royal patronage or the support of the Royal Academy could earn a living. Between 1759 and 1772 Meléndez created one of the greatest assemblages of still lifes ever produced in western painting, a set of 44 works for the private museum of the Prince of Asturias, 39 of which are today in the Museo del Prado. The artist described these works as ‘an amusing cabinet with all types of foodstuffs that the Spanish climate produces’.
Among the great set of works painted for the future Charles IV is a variant of the present painting, of the same size, which is signed with initials (L.s M.z) and dated 1771. Indeed the Prince of Asturias' set of paintings provided a rich source of compositions and types that Meléndez subsequently reinvented in individual variants, presumably painted either on speculation, or as direct commissions from patrons who admired the royal set. In the absence of any known ricordi, it seems highly likely that variants such as this were produced while the prototype was still in the artist’s studio, thereby providing a likely dating for the present work of circa 1771–72.
A comparison between the Prado version and the present painting reveals the extraordinary degree of creativity with which the artist produced his variants. While many of the key still-life elements in the present work recur in the Prado painting – namely the plate of azaroles, the cheese, wooden barrel, glass bottle and small pot – there are substantial changes to the overall composition. The introduction of new elements, in particular the group of pears and peaches on the right side, as well as the selection of mushrooms in the center foreground, prompted the artist to place the plate of azaroles further back within the composition than in the Prado version. Furthermore, throughout the painting there are innumerable changes to various details, from the blistering of the barrel, to the notches on the table top. By rendering the objects with great solidity and highly realistic surfaces, Meléndez has ennobled the still-life elements that by his own account he depicted as a celebration of the natural produce of Spain.
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