Painting out the King
Rescued or ruined?
A small painting with a long history. Done as a still-life exercise for an art class ten years ago, when it showed only the objects on the trolley, it lacked height, my tutor said. Horror vacui! I put it away and forgot about it until I came to write on the artist who'd inspired me in the first place, Luis Meléndez, Spain's finest still-lifer whose trademark overhang I'd shamelessly copied in my knife and tea-cloth. Meléndez died a pauper in 1780, unable to win royal favour after his father upset Charles III. The last straw was having his portrait of the king returned. With his father's hubris, he sliced the canvas in two and set about painting still more still lifes. We know this because x-rays of one, now in the National Gallery London, show Charles buried under a pile of fruit. Very likely Meléndez didn't have the money to buy canvases, or even oranges, for the ones in that same painting are copied from an earlier canvas. How he and his wife, María Redondo, must have suffered! At least I knew what to put in the empty space at the top of my no-longer still life: Charles, oranges and María, sporting a red carnation, walking Madrid at night. Incidentally, I'd first put the image of Charles under the trolley, but I painted that out. It also seemed appropriate to cast the poem as a sonnet in honour of Meléndez's Neoclassicism:
Infra-red shows him standing upside down
on a gessoed canvas you'd sliced in two.
Fruit and veg now splurge over sky-blue silk;
his armour has morphed into kitchenware.
The oranges catch my eye. Copied from
an unsold cloth, they've lost that sunset glow
on Royal Palace walls where Maria
Redondo used to walk come evening.
Absently, she'd watched you place those empty
boxes and cracked jug on her table top,
then rip His Majesty apart to paint
the food she couldn't eat. It was no Bastille,
as gestures go, no Esquilache even,
except for her, whose looks once fed your pride.