Saturday, March 7, 2009

Luis Melendez: Still Life with Figs and Bread

Meléndez' Still Life with Figs and Bread contains many elements characteristic of the master's greatest works. His talent for rendering everyday objects with exacting detail is evident, as are his marvelous effects of color and light, which usually comes from the left, and subtle variations of texture. The bone handle of a kitchen knife projects over the edge of a rough, wooden tabletop into the viewer's space. The eye is led in a zigzag line from the plate of green and purple figs to the crusty bread, to a small barrel and wine flask, and finally to a cork keg or cooler. This cork barrel, with wooden staves, a copper-handled container inside, and what seems to be snow or ice showing at the top, appears in several of his still lifes. The dish, whose undulating rim marks it as de castañuela (in the castanet style) from the Talavera region of Spain, is also a familiar object from his kitchen. The smooth bone knife handle, the subtle variations in the skin and hues of the figs (leathery green and iridescent bluish-purple), the crusty bread, the wood grain of the bucket, the rubbery cork, and the shiny glass and copper surfaces show his mastery at portraying contrasting textures through the skillful manipulation of the fluid properties of oil. The vertical format and the combination of ordinary fruits and kitchen utensils placed in close contact with one another suggest a date in the 1760s, before the larger and more ambitious horizontal canvases of the 1770s.

An x-ray done at the time of the painting's acquisition by the National Gallery reveals that the artist made many changes to the composition. Meléndez originally painted a large wedge of cheese at the lower right, large, highlighted reddish berries instead of figs, and a few berries in place of the knife on the left. He also reworked the contour of the bread, the upper contour of the cooler, and the highlights on the flask.

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