Various foods and containers compete for space on a bare wooden shelf or table. A plate is piled high with walnuts, with chestnuts and oranges scattered nearby and a colossal melon behind. There are earthenware jugs, probably containing oil or wine, and a small barrel. The round boxes were normally used for storing cheese, the rectangular ones for sweets such as dulce de membrillo, a thick quince jelly eaten in slices.
The placement of these everyday objects might seem arbitrary, but Meléndez has arranged his composition carefully to lead our eye round the picture. Though the colour range is limited, the intense light emphasises the range of textures, from dimpled orange peel to the delicate woodgrain of the barrel and boxes. These qualities stand Meléndez’s still-life works apart from those of his contemporaries, and established him as the leading still-life painter of his generation.
Various foods and containers compete for space on a bare wooden shelf or table. A plate is piled high with walnuts, with chestnuts and oranges scattered alongside and a colossal melon behind. There are earthenware jugs, probably containing oil or wine, and a small barrel, possibly filled with olives. The round boxes were normally used for storing cheese, the rectangular ones for sweets such as dulce de membrillo, a thick quince jelly eaten in slices. Someone may have started to prepare the food: some of the walnuts have been opened, though they remain uneaten, and one jug has lost the twine that secures its paper cover.
Meléndez’s close-up view makes these ordinary objects appear monumental. Their placement might seem arbitrary but the artist has arranged his composition carefully: our eye moves along the boxes' diagonals from the smaller items in the foreground to the larger ones at the back. The unevenly stacked boxes are sharply foreshortened, helping to create a sense of depth. Though the colour range is limited, the intense light emphasises the range of textures on display, from the dimpled peel of the oranges to the delicate woodgrain of the barrel and boxes. A similar selection of objects, though differently arranged, appears in Still Life with Lemons and Oranges, suggesting that Meléndez may have owned them or kept them as stock in his studio.
Meléndez placed his signature prominently, with a date of 1772, on the end of one of the boxes closest to us. He painted it at a time when he was hopeful of becoming court painter, having recently worked on a large series of still-life paintings for the Prince of Asturias, the son of Charles III, King of Spain. He was, however, unsuccessful.
This composition has been painted over another work: an X-ray image shows a bust-length portrait of Charles III underneath, which might also have been painted by Meléndez. Its composition is based on a portrait that Anton Raphael Mengs made for the King in around 1761 (Museo del Prado, Madrid). As the monarch’s official image, various copies of Mengs’s painting were made and distributed across the vast Spanish empire during the 1760s and 1770s. Meléndez’s decision to paint over the portrait may reflect his bitter disappointment at being rejected for the royal post of court painter. Or perhaps he was unable to present it to the King or to a member of his court, and subsequently cut the canvas down and reused it, creating a still-life painting instead – the genre for which he is best known today.
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