Tempting Still Life Feast Beckons at National Gallery
Art reviews don’t typically begin with a discussion of food. But in the case of “Luis Meléndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life” — a glorious new National Gallery of Art exhibition celebrating culinary beauty — I’m compelled to make an exception.
First, some strategic advice: Take in the small but stunning array of Meléndez paintings in the gallery’s East Building just before lunch. You’ll work up quite an appetite.
Then, stroll over to the Garden Café España in the West Building. There, you can feast on a sumptuous but affordable Meléndez-inspired buffet created by another Spanish artist of sorts — D.C. celebrity chef José Andrés.
Andrés, founder of some of Washington’s finest restaurants, including Café Atlantico and Oyamel, has compiled a smorgasbord of delectable delights. The buffet and a la carte menu put a contemporary twist on the cheeses, fish, garlic, tomatoes, melons, figs, hams, poultry, etc., that Meléndez rendered so lovingly nearly 300 years ago.
Best of all, the exhibition is free, and Andrés’s buffet is a steal at just .25 for all you can eat. This is the best lunch deal — or one of the most impressive lunch dates? — in Washington at the moment.
But, we digress. This review is about the Meléndez exhibition. And what an exhibition it is. Small in size with just 31 paintings, the collection does a marvelous job of introducing us to the artist, as well as his seemingly forgotten delights of simple culinary ingredients. In addition to the paintings, you can peruse nine examples of 18th-century kitchenware similar to those Meléndez used as studio props.
We learn that the Spanish still life painter’s skill far exceeds his legacy. That’s partly because the artist was such a diva. Although Meléndez was a wildly talented painter even early in his career, his brash nature offended no less than King Ferdinand VI. Consequently, he and his father — another skilled artist — were both expelled from Spain’s Royal Academy of Art.
It was a devastating blow to the younger Meléndez, who longed to achieve royal patronage. Nevertheless, he achieved greatness as a painter of still life, although he died a self-proclaimed pauper.
The exhibition doesn’t waste any time demonstrating Meléndez’s jaw-dropping talent. The first painting inside the exhibition — “Still Life with Grapes, Figs, and a Copper Kettle” — contains images so vivid they almost appear three-dimensional. The kettle’s black iron handle, rendered perfectly to scale, practically begs to be lifted to see what’s inside. Meanwhile, emerald-green grapes tumble off the wooden table, glistening in the soft light.
In “Still Life with Melon, Boxes of Sweets, Cask, and Spoon,” Meléndez is less concerned with color and more focused on compositional balance. The amber-toned painting is remarkable for its simple, sparse arrangement and the way the artist hones in on the tiniest details — an unraveling string that holds the melon, a tiny sliver of paper (covering the nougat) peeking out from a slightly askew lid on a wooden box.
In “Still Life with Beef,” I was less struck by the beef chop — which seemed somewhat muddled — than by a simple bulb of garlic. Here as well as anywhere, Meléndez demonstrates his masterful understanding of light, as the ivory tendrils atop the garlic bulb seem to crawl off the canvas.
That’s not to say Meléndez doesn’t strike the occasional false note. In “Still Life with Pigeons, Onions, Bread, and Kitchen Utensils,” the bread is off, while a flat patina dulls the visual and the shape misses the nuance so evident elsewhere in the painting.
But the artist’s renderings of fruit are so vibrant and sumptuous they border on the erotic. For example, Meléndez reveals the complex and slightly exotic pomegranate in all its natural glory. The ruby fruits are cracked open in this work, allowing the sweet, shimmering diamond-shaped seeds to litter the canvas.
His watermelons are bursting with life. The use of light here is dazzling, from the shimmering drops of juice sliding down the meat of the fruit to the reflections of the rounded edges of the seeds. Each individual seed has its own highlight and shadow, as they either cling to the melon itself or tumble downward to the ground below. These watermelons make an especially appealing visual on a humid summer day.
Interestingly, Meléndez’s frequent use of pears is notable for their defects. He captures a pear’s natural blemishes perfectly, demonstrating his keen observation of beauty and its decay. His command of nuance is eternally impressive.
It’s worth noting that Meléndez never presented a cooked meal, only the raw materials, leaving the end result to the viewer’s imagination. Of course, that’s where José Andrés and that wonderful buffet come in.
“Luis Meléndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life” runs through Aug. 23 at the National Gallery of Art, located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW. For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.