Thursday, May 14, 2009

Luis Melendez: Master of the Spanish Still Life

Despite a former Washington Post art critic telling me that "still lifes aren't sexy," over breakfast this week, I have a great appreciation for the paintings. As with the Giorgio Morandi show on display through May 24 at the Phillips Collection, Luis Melendez: Master of the Spanish Still Life, which opens Sunday at the National Gallery, offers the same calming, beautiful works. As someone who usually goes more for contemporary art, it's a nice change of pace to walk through a show where there's no frenetic movement and everything is, well, still.

Luis Melendez is a new artist for me, and the 18th century Spanish painter was a student at the Royal Academy of Arts in Madrid, where his father worked, before the two were thrown out over clashing with the administration. Melendez never got to be the royal painter he aspired to, but he was commissioned to paint a series of still lifes in 1771, for the future King Charles IV. These works, which would depict "the four Seasons of the Year… with the aim of composing an amusing cabinet with every species of food produced by the Spanish climate."

The ambitious project, which was canceled and left unfinished, contributed 9 of the 22 paintings on display at the Gallery. The others are from American and European collections, including Still Life with Figs and Bread, which is housed in the National Gallery.

There's a wide array of food depicted here, from figs and game to chocolate and garlic. If the paintings make you hungry, head to the cafe, where local chef Jose Andres has made a special menu. Look for a buffet with a range of Spanish dishes, including a fantastic meatball with plums, which I tried, and you can also order a la carte items like cold almond and garlic soup with shrimp, grapes and Marcona almonds.

Still Life with Cucumbers, Tomatoes, and Kitchen Utensils
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

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