Lemons and oranges teeter on the edge of a table or ledge in front of an earthenware jug, a huge melon, some round boxes used for storing cheese, a bottle – perhaps holding wine – and a coarsely woven basket. These everyday items, seemingly placed at random, are carefully arranged, increasing in size as our eye moves further into the picture. The sophisticated composition creates a sense of depth and draws us in.
Meléndez paints from a low viewpoint, close to the objects, and he has skilfully reproduced their textures, shapes and colours. Light and shade play across different surfaces, and the lemons look real enough to pick up. Twine has been roughly tied around the neck of the jug, holding a creased white paper cover in place to preserve its contents.
Although Meléndez began his career as a figure painter, it was with pictures such as this that he established himself as the leading still-life painter in eighteenth-century Spain.
Meléndez has chosen to paint from a low viewpoint, close to the objects, and he has skilfully reproduced their textures, shapes and colours. It is this quality that makes his still-life paintings (bodegón in Spanish) so distinctive. The lemons, complete with their lumps and knobbles, look real enough to pick up; one seems about to roll off the table and fall at our feet. Twine has been roughly tied around the neck of the jug and holds a creased white paper cover in place in order to preserve its contents.
Light and shade play across the different surfaces, making the objects appear more convincingly three-dimensional. The rind of the lemons and oranges glows in the light, its dimpled pattern created with dots and daubs of different coloured paint, while a highlight of white paint suggests the gloss of the large melon’s smooth rind. Meléndez has brilliantly conveyed the basket’s uneven surface by layering lighter strokes of paint on top of darker ones, distinguishing the edges that catch the light from the recesses of the weave.
This work probably dates from the 1760s, Meléndez’s most prolific period for producing still-life paintings – he made 100 or so during the last 20 years of his life, spanning the 1760s and 1770s. Like other still-life painters he made use of everyday objects he owned, and this is why some items repeatedly appear in his pictures. Meléndez’s Still Life with Oranges and Walnuts has a similar selection of simple foods and containers that might be found in any Spanish household at the time.
Although Meléndez began his career as a figure painter, it was with pictures such as this that he established his reputation as the leading still-life painter in eighteenth-century Spain. His realistic depiction of objects, skilfully described in all their colours and textures, moved the tradition away from the austere still-life paintings of the previous century, exemplified by Francisco de Zurbarán and his son Juan.
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