An artist known by his fruits
LUIS MEL'ENDEZ is known by his fruits. One of the most beautiful of these looks as if it is about to roll off the table and entirely out of the painting. A sharp, raking light warms the rough, lacy rind of the cantaloupe melon's broad face. Companionly pears, tumbled alongside, roll on the rough tabletop, stems curling in every direction. Backed by basket, bowls, and barrels, the fresh fruit seems to frolic across the foreground. Mel'endez specialized in this type of image. In 1772, the year often given to our undated painting, Mel'endez petitioned Charles II of Spain for a position as court artist, asking ``to decorate a sitting room with all the species of edible things that the Spanish climate produces in these four seasons.''
Mel'endez had reason to apply to the king. Son of Francesco Mel'endez, who served as court painter of portrait miniatures, and who had helped initiate the first academy of art in Spain - the Royal Academy of San Fernando in 1752 - Luis had been well trained by his father and in that school.
He had traveled to Rome, and lived in Naples, where he learned the architectonics of Neapolitan still-life painting - its warm wood tones, its monumental shapes, its tantalizing textures. A century earlier, Caravaggio had launched this type of painting when he daringly isolated a single basket of fruit as a complete painting, much as the ancient Romans had in mosaic design.
When Mel'endez's father called him back to Spain in 1757 to help with a commission to paint large religious scenes for a book of music for the new Royal Chapel in Madrid, Luis found himself in an interesting position.
Trained as a portrait miniaturist and as an academic painter in a classical style that had developed since the 16th century, in touch with the strong, realistic ideas of Caravaggio's followers, Luis was now to participate with his family in a type of painting with medieval roots.
The artist painted some of the large figural scenes, but he concentrated on the surrounding borders and images inside large initial letters. There grapes dangle, vines twist, and leaves curl in opulent abundance.
From 1759 on, Luis specialized in painting fruits, full size on canvas, at least 90 times.
By 1818, 45 of his paintings hung in the royal summer palace of Aranjuez. Arranged in tiers, they were piled three or four high, from shoulder height to the ceiling (39 are now in the Prado Museum, Madrid).
By choosing a new subject, independent of his family's work in portrait miniatures, Luis was acting as a professional, academically trained artist, rather than in the family craft tradition of the middle ages.
Yet his family also shared the new artistic world of 18th-century Spain.
His sister, Ana, was appointed to a high position in the Royal Academy of San Fernando in 1759, the second woman to be honored this way; and his niece was elected to the Academy in 1794 and became a court painter.
Mel'endez's ``Still Life With Melon and Pears'' is a magnificent, monumental painting perhaps because the artist had had access to all these worlds.
The Academy, from the 16th century on, like the medieval guilds, gave artists the benefit of a professional organization.
The Academy also conferred the Renaissance image of artist as a literate, educated individual.
Grounded in a medieval craft tradition of the family workshop, of manuscript illumination, and of patient perfecting of one subject, Mel'endez improved his art by contact with firm academic design.
Unlike Caravaggio, whose police record traces a dark counterpoint to his vibrant, tenderly rendered paintings, Mel'endez lived a peaceful married life on a small street near the Royal Palace in Madrid.
The combination of craft and Academy must have prepared him well to choose in Italy what he could do best.
In the still life, Luis found what he had already experienced: sensitivity to surfaces, solid knowledge of design.