Still Life with a Chocolate Service1770. Oil on canvas, 50 x 37 cm.
When describing the work of this prolific painter of still lifes, it is frequently said that Luis Meléndez included only commonplace objects in his canvases; this painting, in fact, offers the exception that proves the rule. Amid the various objects represented here are a porcelain cup and large saucer, or plate, which seem to be East Asian rather than Spanish. Indeed, they may be Cantonese from the Qing dynasty, having arrived in Europe via the Dutch East India Company. The painting also features a chocolate pot, within which the tall handle of the beater marks a vertical line in the composition, while the long handle of the pot itself marks the horizontal. Surrounding these are a bun and several biscuits, one of which appears to have fallen off the plate. In the foreground there are also a dozen or so chocolate medallions scattered about on their wrapping paper, the initial form of the cacao that is used to prepare the thick chocolate drink.As John Armstrong Crow points out in his book Spain: The Root and the Flower (2005): During the eighteenth century two hot drinks were served in Spain, chocolate and coffee. The latter drink was popular among the French and the few Spaniards who followed them, but hot chocolate was still by far the most popular beverage. It was more than just a beverage; it was an institution of the epoch. As in the Golden Age hot chocolate was drunk by all classes. Even Charles III himself, despite his French blood, enjoyed hot chocolate and seldom failed to ask for a second cup. The chocolatera or chocolate pot at the palace held fifty-six pounds of the beverage and served a huge number of drinkers.The popularity of this exquisite drink explains its inclusion in the series of still lifes Meléndez painted, together with the other desserts and afternoon snacks he presents in his canvases. This composition is particularly noteworthy for the undeniably original way in which it is structured as well as the curious motifs it combines, uniting ideas rooted in the Spanish tradition of the seventeenth century with the refinement characteristic of the eighteenth. These expertly executed elements are sharply outlined against a neutral background, a formula that allows them to be instantly identifiable.The arrangement, which juxtaposes vertical and horizontal lines, is very clear despite the presence of various diagonals that break up the composition in the interest of naturalistic expression. Overall, the canvas reveals Meléndez´s conscious analysis of the quotidian, captured in such a way that the objects seem almost tangible. The various elements are executed with a delicacy that evinces the artist´s taste for logical construction, which creates a coherent arrangement of diverse motifs. Meléndez integrates them with a verisimilitude that draws the viewer´s gaze.However, these objects also possess a remarkable expressive power that individualises them, owing both to the skill with which they have been painted as well as to the clear delineation of their separate volumes. Meléndez has imagined a scene in which each element plays a clear and simple role. It seems almost as if all movement has ceased momentarily so that we may observe them outside time, in a kind of suspended animation. His technique is irreproachable. The sharp illumination of the metal surface of the pot is worth noting as well, for it seems to sparkle; the artist has achieved this effect through light touches of the brush applied with exquisite precision, playing with a range of colours that, at certain points, are rich with impasto (Luna, J. J.: Portrait of Spain. Masterpieces from the Prado, Queensland Art Gallery-Art Exhibitions Australia, 2012, p. 172).