Still Life with Lemons: Luis Egidio Meléndez (1716-1780)
I have painted cork coolers of Rioja wine, a pair of doves, red beaks and claws, forever entwined, a copper chocolate mill used to mix the thick brew that royal ladies sip in gilded porcelain cups. Before meals, I set out our best Talavera plates with cucumbers, lemons, grapes and watermelon. I rendered juice so real you could taste it.
I am the painter Luis Egidio Meléndez . You must have seen my self-portrait at the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts. It won first prize in my first year as a student there. Did you notice my rendering in chalk of a male nude who seems to step off the page? I am holding the chalk in a brass holder and my white ruffles are immaculately clean. You may wonder why I was never commissioned to paint the portraits of our King and Queen.
I live on Calle del Espejo. In this Street of the Mirror, my neighbour Francisco de Goya has seen only success: royal commissions and court appointments. This twisted street has shown me only disappointment. Legends say that the Muslims built a tower here to watch for enemies. I should have done likewise.
My father, renowned miniaturist, Francisco Meléndez de Rivera Díaz, was the head of painting at Madrid’s new Royal Academy of Fine Arts, and I, its most promising student. I thought father was proud, but perhaps he felt threatened, when I won highest honours in painting in my first year.
Father wrote a scathing epistle to the school’s director to demand more recognition as a founder of the school. I understand his frustration but, why didn’t he deliver the letter instead of giving that job to me? He was fired, and I was expelled, so I left to study in Rome and Naples.
The dominion of our King Carlos III stretches beyond the seas. He is a patron of the arts, yet he’s never requested a single work from me. Years ago, I painted his portrait as a gift, but he never answered my letters and proposals. I am a married man with children. We would have starved if my patron, the heir to the throne, were not a botanist, hunter, and epicure. The prince has my forty-four paintings of the fruits and vegetables of Spain.
When money from the prince’s commission ran out, I traced over my work to make copies for merchants and courtiers. Painted ‘til the bread cracked, and the pears bruised. Plugged the wine carafe with cork ‘til it crumbled, replaced the cork with scraps of cloth, then paper. I’ve pawned everything but my pen and pencils. Today, on my deathbed, I declare myself a pauper.
Lois Baer Barr
This story previously appeared in Loading Zone/Zona de carga and as part of an essay called "Still Life: Theory and Practice" in cream city review.
Lois Baer Barr took art history courses at the Prado Museum through the University of Madrid and writes poetry and fiction about Hispanic painters. Her work has appeared in Spanish and English at Alimentum, cream city review, Letralia, Southern Women's Quarterly and in anthologies such as Art from Art. An emerita professor of Spanish at Lake Forest College, Barr is a literacy tutor and a student of flamenco.
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