Yale University Press, 178 pp., $60.00
One of the special pleasures in going to museums or looking through the odd survey of a museum’s collection (or a private collection) comes in finding work by artists who are at once almost entirely unknown and stimulating in some way. If, in learning more about these figures, their work grows in fascination, we probably want it to be better known, though at the same time we half-believe it ought to remain a little buried. This isn’t for fear that when seen in full this or that artist won’t measure up but because as somewhat mysterious figures they add a welcome note of uncertainty and incompletion to our sense of the past.
For some of us, the Spanish still-life painter Luis Meléndez (1715–1780) has for years been precisely such a figure. In 1987 the late Michael Levey, writing in The National Gallery Collection, a guide to London’s National Gallery, noted that the artist had only recently begun to attract attention, and it was clear, from looking at the museum’s Still Life with Oranges, Walnuts, and Boxes of Sweets, which Levey reproduced—a clearly lit, casual yet orderly arrangement of foods and kitchen objects done in an array of tans, oranges, and browns and set against a dark background—that Meléndez was adding a distinctive note to Spanish, if not European, painting. Like the work of Chardin, the preeminent still-life painter of the eighteenth century, this 1772 canvas presented an unassuming, even humble, subject, and it went far further than Chardin in dispensing with musty symbolic trappings and any air of sentimentalized warmth.
The London picture (and other Meléndez works one encountered here and there) set off sparks in many directions, however. With his feeling for crisply clear forms placed against empty dark backgrounds, Meléndez appeared to be a lone reviver of a particularly Spanish way of thinking about still life that had briefly been evident some hundred and fifty years earlier. This was when, in the early 1600s, two giants of Spanish art, Velázquez and Zurbarán, made a handful of similarly stark, and extraordinary, still lifes (or paintings that included still-life passages) of everyday foods, jugs, or cups, and when the lesser-known Juan Sánchez Cotán and Juan van der Hamen y León, also presenting isolated and brightly lit foods in radically bare settings, were among the first artists anywhere to concentrate purely on still lifes.
Meléndez’s art looked forward in time, too. The hard, steady light and uncluttered, undainty appearance of his still lifes provided a foretaste of the pictures that Jacques-Louis David would be making in the 1780s and 1790s of the classical world seen as a series of ardent, politicized, dramatically spotlit tableaux. The Spanish artist’s conception of a realm of catty-cornered items placed on a stage that was simultaneously too bright and too dark even …