Luis Egidio Melendez (1716–1780) was a Spanish painter. Although he received little acclaim during his lifetime and died in poverty, Melendez is recognized today as the greatest Spanish still-life painter of the 18th century. His mastery of composition and light, and his remarkable ability to convey the volume and texture of individual objects enabled him to transform the most mundane of kitchen fare into powerful images.
Luis Egidio Melendez de Rivera Durazo y Santo Padre was born in Naples in 1716. His father, Francisco Melendez de Rivera Diaz (1682- after 1758), was a miniaturist painter from Oviedo who had moved to Madrid with his older brother, the portrait painter Miguel Jacinto Melendez (1679–1734) in pursuit of artistic instruction.
Whereas Miguel remained in Madrid to study and became a painter in the court of Philip V, Francisco left for Italy in 1699 to seek greater artistic exposure. Francisco took a special interest in visiting the Italian academies and settled in Naples where he married Maria Josefa Durazo y Santo Padre Barrille. Luis was a year old when his father, who had been a soldier in a Spanish garrison and lived abroad for almost two decades, returned to Madrid with the family. Luis Egidio, his brother Jose Agustin, and Ana, one of his sisters, began their careers under the tutelage of their father, who was appointed the King’s Painter of Miniatures in 1725.
After several years, in his words: painting royal portraits in jewels and bracelets to serve as gifts for envoys and ambassadors, he entered the workshop of Louis Michel van Loo (1707–1771), a Frenchman who had been made royal painter of Philip V of Spain. Between 1737 to 1742, Melendez worked as a part of a team of artist dedicated to copy van Loo's prototypes of royal portraits for the domestic and overseas market, but at least he had a foothold in the palace. He had his artistic sights on a distinguished career as a court painter.
When the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando was provisionally inaugurated in 1744, his father, Francisco, was made an honorary director of the painting section and Luis was among the first students to be admitted, where he achieved outstanding results in drawing. The Academy was progressive in that it not only tolerated but also encouraged the 'lesser' genres, including still life.
At this time, he was already an accomplished painter as proved by his self-portrait at the Louvre signed in 1747. However, this opportunity was marred by a petty quarrel; Luis’ father, Francisco, openly attacked the director of the Academy and claimed for himself the honor of being the founder. He had his son Luis personally delivered the inflammatory material to the Academy. Francisco was relieved of his teaching position and Luis was formally expelled from the Academy on June 15, 1748. Unlike his father, Luis professional status was precarious. Young and self-righteous, without the support of the Academy and his reputation at stake, decided to go to Italy to get new opportunities, where he remained from 1748 until 1752. He stayed in Rome and Naples to pursue other career possibilities. There he made some painting that are now lost, for Charles III of Spain, who was then King of Naples.
After a fire at the Alcazar of Madrid in 1753 destroyed scores of illuminated choir books, Francisco Melendez coaxed his 37-year-old son to come back to Spain to help paint new miniatures. Though Luis Melendez eventually executed scores of still lifes for the royal household, he was never able to secure an official appointment to serve the king.
Luis Melendez worked out of Madrid and initially painted an array of subjects. In 1760 Melendez' petition for the position of court painter was refused, despite the caliber of his early works. He painted some religious works but after 1760, he began specializing in still life, a decorative genre that could be produced without commission and was therefore lucrative for artists without royal patronage or the support of the Academy. Between 1759 and 1772, he created at least 44 still lifes for the private museum of natural history belonging to the Prince of Asturias, who later became King Charles IV of Spain. Of these paintings thirty nine are today in the Museo del Prado, and it is rare to find his work outside of Spain.
Despite his talent, Luis Melendez lived in poverty for most of his life, and in 1772 in a letter to the king he declared that he only owned his pencils. Unappreciated in his time, when he died in Madrid in 1780, he was indigent.
Luis Melendez updated and enriched the austere tradition of Spanish still life painting, which had been initiated by the 17th-century masters Juan Sanchez Cotan and Francisco de Zurbaran. Like them, Melendez, studied light effects, texture and the color of fruits and vegetables as well as the earthenware, glass and copper pots beside which the fruit is displayed. Unlike the 17th-century masters, however, his subject matter is presented physically closer to the viewer, at a lower vantage point, encouraging the spectator to study the objects for themselves. This exploration was in keeping with the growing spirit of Enlightenment and the king's interest in natural history.
Melendez painted his still lifes with a serious sense of reverence. The grand themes did not attract him, but the ordinary stuff of everyday life, which he studied with an enormous visual interest in the everyday normality of form. Each still-life painting by Melendez is visually arresting and compelling and reveals a wonderful technical skill at constructing compositions. Melendez conveyed the solidity and precise texture of objects in artful compositions of great sophistication. He employed a low vantage point and close-up view of objects placed on a tabletop to give his forms an unprecedented monumentality. The use of strong lighting to bring out the volume of the objects enhanced his extraordinary descriptive skill.
Melendez seems to have spent more time lighting his scenes than preparing pigments for his palette. He loved painting reflections on the surfaces, edges, and rims of lemons, copper pots, ceramic bowls, plums, and melons. This contributes to the lively character and rhythm of his work. Luis Melendez described his works as 'an amusing cabinet with all types of foodstuffs that the Spanish climate produces'
Among his works outside el Museo del Prado are: Still life with Oranges, Walnuts and Boxes of Sweetmeats (National Gallery, London); Still life with a Plate of Plums, Pears and Fruit Basket (Masaveu Collection, Museo de Bellas Artes, Asturias) and Still life with Red Breams and Oranges (Private Collection).