Spain’s Immovable Feast Of 18th-Century Serenity

Posted May 19, 2009 at 4:30pm

These days, it’s not enough for a museum to open a show with still life paintings that look good enough to eat. You have to offer the eats, too.

The National Gallery of Art’s new Spanish exhibit, “Luis Meléndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life,— which opened Sunday, takes still life to a whole new level. Yes, there are 31 exquisite paintings from the man who was considered the greatest Spanish still life painter of the 18th century, but there is also an added benefit for museum-goers: real Spanish cuisine in the nearby Garden Café.

Using the same concept the Gallery used for its recent — and lovely — show of Dutch cityscapes with accompanying Dutch cuisine, the Gallery this time is going Spanish in a big way. In addition to the peaceful, contemplative portraits of the bounty of the kitchen, the museum on June 28 will open a second exhibit with a Spanish theme: “The Art of Power: Royal Armor and Portraits from Imperial Spain.—

It’s not a bad way to work up an appetite for “ajo blanco con camarónes, uvas y almendras,— or cold almond and garlic soup with shrimp, grapes and Marcona almonds and “albóndigas con ciruelas,— or meatballs with plums, created by chef José Andrés of Jaleo fame and served in the pretty setting of the lower level of the gallery’s West Building.

Yet even without a tempting repast waiting in the Garden Café, it would take almost super-human effort not to experience some mouth-watering and stomach-rumbling in any encounter with the Meléndez paintings. Apples, pears, cheese, bread, grapes, watermelon, chocolate wafers, cucumbers — all appear in elegant still life works, almost all of them set against a chocolate-brown backdrop.

Meléndez may have painted serene tables laden with the fruits of the season, but he also seems to have been a difficult man who ended his life as a pauper. In fact, Meléndez and his father were expelled from the provisional royal academy of art in Madrid after a petty quarrel. The show’s opening painting gives a hint of the painter’s haughty personality. His self-portrait, dated 1746, shows a young man proudly displaying a black chalk drawing that won him entry into a prestigious art academy in Madrid. That early work — the only human figure in the show — gives some hint of Meléndez’s talent in using depth, color and light.

The rest is a celebration of the inanimate objects of the table, including pigeons, fish, slabs of beef and ham, vegetables and fruit, and the utensils that prepare and help to serve these meals. Meléndez tends to paint relatively uncluttered still life paintings, with just a handful of elements. That helps focus the eye on, for instance, the soft spots in a mound of ripe pears, the texture of a roll or the juice dripping off a brilliant-colored watermelon.

Meléndez was a prolific recycler: Not only did he use almost exactly the same images in multiple paintings, but he most likely traced an image from one canvas to the next, curator Gretchen Hirschauer says. In fact, items that must have been owned by Meléndez appear in multiple paintings, including one wine bottle that begins the cycle with a cork stopper attached to the bottle with a cord, eventually appears without cord and then, finally, appears with a piece of paper shoved into the bottle opening in place of the cork.

Several paintings portray nearly identical items — a dead pigeon, for instance — that Meléndez seems to have copied with some kind of see-through paper. That technique would not have been seen as a shortcut, Hirschauer notes, since the 18th-century ideal of “originality— was far different than our definition of it today. The National Gallery of Art has deliberately placed the matching items in side-by-side paintings so that observers can easily see what has been carried over.

None of these details limit the exhibit’s overall strength. The gallery offers another nice touch — several of the everyday objects painted by Meléndez are displayed in cases near the paintings. Although they are unlikely to be the very same copper cooking pot, Mexican bowl or chocolate pot and whisk Meléndez had in his Madrid studio, they allow the viewer to see just how faithfully Meléndez captured the everyday items of 18th-century Spain.

And that’s reason enough to pay a visit. “Luis Meléndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life— is open through Aug. 23.