I’m visiting my family in Virginia, and on Friday we went to the National Gallery of Art to see an exhibit of still life paintings by Luis Melendez, an 18th-century Spanish artist.  Melendez, who would have preferred to be an official court painter and produce lavish portraits of rulers, was instead asked by a Spanish prince (who later became King Charles IV)  to produce a series of paintings that would reflect “the four Seasons of the Year, or more properly, the four Elements, with the aim of composing an amusing cabinet with every species of food produced by the Spanish climate.”


The paintings were stunning. While a few featured a landscape background that seemed overly-stylized, most of the paintings were arrangements of common food items on nondescript wooden tables — piles of fruit and vegetables, fish and meat, wedges of cheese, small packets of sweets, small honey pots, heavy white pitchers, wine bottles that catch the light. I found it interesting that this man who was frustrated in his career by his inability to achieve the position he desired had produced these paintings that are much more universal, much more satisfying, than lavish court paintings would ever be.

Melendez - Still Life