The Still-Lives of Meléndez and Goya

In an earlier post I discussed how world history could be seen through the Dutch still-lives of the 17th century.  That post as well as this were excerpted from my paper Objects and Their Meanings: 400 Years of History as Seen Through the Still-Life.  I spoke on this last year at the NWHA conference where the topic was "Teaching World History Through Art."  I thought this was an excellent conference theme and learned a great deal.  I personally have learned so much of world history by studying art history and wanted to give another illustrating how the viewer can directly see world events affect still-life paintings.  Still-lives can be seen as primary source documents like letters and diaries.  Larger events in history and going to affect what and how everyday objects are shown.
Due to the difference in the reigns between King Charles III and King Charles IV we can see a duality in the style of still-life painting in late 18th  and early 19th century Spain.   As my example I will compare and contrast one each of the still-lives of Meléndez and Goya.
Still Life with Watermelons and Apples, Luis Egidio Meléndez, c-1770, Museo del Prado

The reign of Spain’s King Charles III (1716-1788) brought in a new era of prosperity with the conquest of Naples and Sicily.  Charles III was also working on urban planning and turning Madrid into a capitol city, in 1770 he chose a National anthem and flag for the country.  He had several court painters, one being Luis Egidio Meléndez, who painted a series of 40 still-lives for the Royal Palace.  He wanted to depict every type of fruit and vegetable grown in Spain, therefore those paintings can be seen as symbols of Spanish pride.  The following year Melendez painted his Afternoon Meal which reflected the leisure of the aristocracy who were able to picnic in the country on a variety of delicious types of produce and gave some insight into courtly life.

Still-Life with Sheep’s Head, Francisco Goya, 1808-12, Louvre

However after the King’s rule ended in 1788 Spain began to decline politically under the rule of the ineffectual king Charles IV.  Francisco Goya was the royal court painter but he was disillusioned by royalty, often portraying the royal family as buffoonish.  Goya lived through the particularly brutal Napoleonic siege on Madrid in 1808.  As he painted his well-known work, The 3rd of May, which showed the horrors of war on a human scale, he concurrently painted several still-lives such as his Still-Life with Sheep’s Head.  This still-life was one of several where the subject was cut up meat or fish.  The butchered meat still-life wasn’t new but was now painted with a sense of disturbing accuracy and brutality due to the severed head.  The sheep can be seen as an innocent led to slaughter the way the Spanish people were during that terrible time.
The Third of May 1808, Francisco Goya, 1814, Museo del Prado

The Imaginary Prisons of Piranesi

In painting, a capriccio is a work where part or all of the subject matter is invented and typically focuses on architecture.  The word itself is derived from the Italian term used for the impulsive jumping of a baby goat.  The capriccio style was developed as an art form in early eighteenth century Venice, influenced by Italian theater.  The genre grew in Italy throughout the eighteenth century, especially in Venice and Rome as a result of the Grand Tour when capricci were created as an alternative to the veduta, also known as a view painting.  The capriccio was not meant to represent reality, but rather to provide the viewer with an interesting image based on reality. 

The Drawbridge, Etching from the series: The Imaginary Prisons

Compositions of capricci ranged in subject, type and style and often included the monuments or ruins in Italy that travelers came to see.  Painters such as Canaletto in Venice, and Pannini in Rome, created paintings based on altered views of their respective cities.  Some were slightly altered to make for a more enjoyable visual composition while other views completely rearranged well known monuments to make them fit into the same scene.  The typical patron of these capricci were British travelers on the Grand Tour who wanted to bring home paintings which captured several specific monuments or created interesting imaginary views. 

 The Gothic Arch, Etching from the series: The Imaginary Prisons

Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778) was an Italian artist best known for his hundreds of etchings including views of Rome, Pompeii and his series on "Le Carceri d'Invenzione" or "The Imaginary Prisons.  Piranesi was born and raised in the Veneto region and spent most of his life in Rome which gave him the inspiration for most of his work.

The Saw Horse, Etching from the series: The Imaginary Prisons

While in the Veneto Piranesi was trained in both architecture and stage design for theater and opera.  He was also heavily influenced by the Classical Renaissance style of architecture introduced by Palladio, which can be seen in the symmetry of pillars and arches.  Piranesi created a variation on capricci which were based entirely on his imagination; he created a wide variety of etchings showing scenes ranging from views of an imagined Ancient Rome to a series of imaginary prisons.   

The Imaginary Prisons (Le Carceri d'Invenzione) were one series of his etchings that he published in 1750, he reworked and republished them about a decade later.  Unlike a typical capriccio, these weren't created to appeal to the Grand Tourist and fully expressed the imagination of the artist rather than being based on well known monuments.

 The Pier with Chains, Etching from the series: The Imaginary Prisons

These scenes have always been found unsettling and were inspired by an opera set that he had worked on in the past.  They are referred to as prisons, but there are nearly no people in these scenes.  Instead Piranesi uses the same sense of scale as the monumental, ancient architecture of Rome as well as a Gothic sense of atmosphere.  While he was creating drawings for these etchings, he also seems to derive his strong lights and darks from the Caravagisti painters (this term was described in my earlier blog post on Caravaggio) which further adds to the tension.

 Arch with a Shell Ornament, Etching from the series: The Imaginary Prisons

They are both fascinating and menacing, perfectly ordered yet confusing and chaotic, realistic and dreamlike.  They drew on his imagination, his theatrical set experience and his knowledge of architecture.  Considering this work was created in the mid-eighteenth century, this is a far cry from the lighthearted and decorative Rococo style which was now in favor.

The Smoking Fire, Etching from the series: The Imaginary Prisons

Look closely at each print, each can make the viewer feel lost or trapped, trying to figure the way out.  But for the titles there is little to identify most scenes as prisons, if they were referred to in another sense (the theater, the castle, etc.) perhaps they wouldn't be so intimidating.

This series of etchings went on to influence many other artists such as the Romanticism movement, the Surrealists and M.C. Escher to name a few.  Piranesi's other works of art are among my favorites, but it is this series that sets him apart from other artists of his time.

I Macchiaioli

The Pitti Palace in Florence is a large collection of museums including an enormous garden housed in the former Medici palace.  I have been to the Pitti Palace several times, but in 2010 for the first time I went to the Galeria dell’Arte Moderna (Gallery of Modern Art).  It was then that I learned about a group of late 19th century Italian painters I had never heard of before, I Macchiaioli.  Specifically this group lived and worked in Tuscany at the same time that the Italian regions and city-states were unifying as the country of Italy.

 Giovanni Fattori, Spiaggia Boscosa,1894 (1825-1908)

I was truly impressed by their work and wondered why I hadn’t seen them in a book on 19th century artists or read about them in an overview on painting in general. In fact I am having trouble finding a book written in English about this group of painters.  I bought a wonderful book in Italian from the gift shop which has helped inspire me to keep studying Italian but I must admit I read Italian quite slowly.  I want to introduce this group to a larger audience which may not know of their work, but at the same time I am still learning myself of their styles and influence.

The name I Macchiaioli is derived from the word for “spots” as in spots of light, shadow and color, think of a “café macchiato” which is espresso spotted with milk and it is pronounced much the same way.  The Gallery of Modern Art had the best wall text and gallery overviews, I read them all and took notes too, they gave me a lot to think about- actually they go very in depth. 

 Telemaco Signorini, La Piazza di Settignano, 1881(1835-1901)

I learned how Italian painters of the 18th and 19th centuries were influenced by French artists with Neoclassical art (a branch of the Bourbon family lived in Lucca), Romanticism (a return to early narrative styles), Realism (peasant scenes ala Jules Bastien-La Page), the Barbizon School and Impressionism.  At the same time they were influenced by the centuries of Renaissance art around them.
In thinking of spots of color and in looking at their work it would seem that the Macchiaioli was influenced by the French Impressionists, but in fact they predate them by a decade.  I find it very interesting that both of these styles were developing around the same time in different parts of Europe.  The Macchiaioli painters were subjected to similar ridicule and criticism from art critics as their Impressionist contemporaries.

Guiseppe Abbati, Il Lattaio di Piagentina, 1864 (1836-1868)


Here is a quote from the wall text which describes how early 19th century painters were turning away from Neoclassicism:

“Italian artists felt that in order to overcome canons imposed by antiquated models it was necessary, not only to invoke themes of modern history, but to make them more attractive by reclaiming the grand experience of 16th and 17th century art, considered the most appropriate for expression of sublime concepts and natural passions.”

After centuries of leading the western world artistically the influence of contemporary Italian artists had waned and was supplanted by the French. However those same French artists were coming to Italy to study the Renaissance. In the late 1800’s Italy was uniting as a country but the Risorgimento had a lot of work to do during the transition. Artists from all over Europe and beyond were continuing to travel to Italy for the “Grand Tour” and their work and presence was in turn influencing the artists who lived here.

It seems that I Macchiaioli were using their own experiences and landscape to capture a feeling of rural life and the middle class during the modern age, while at the same time looking toward the great artists of the past who influenced their use of realism and pure color.  Their style was the antithesis of Neoclassical art much in the same way that the Impressionists rejected the painting style of the French Academy.   

One main difference seemed to me to be that the Impressionists were mainly concerned about depicting light and color and the Macchiaioli were interested in depicting modern subjects and exploring a new voice for Italian painters.  It is important to keep in mind that during this historic time of Italian unification (and the wars that were fought for the unification to be successful and to be prevented) that it was significant for the artists to find a new style which was both Italian and modern.

I am personally impressed by the wide range in styles of the artists, the light that was captured by each painting, the colors that were used, the shapes of the canvases and the feelings that were captured using “spots” of color.

 Silvestro Lega, Un Dopo Pranzo, 1868 (1826-1895)

Here is the full list of artists in my book on the Macchiaioli called “I Macchiaioli: La Storia, Gli Artisti, Le Opere” written by Silvestra Bietoletti and published in 2001 by Giunti Editore in Florence.  I have hyper-linked those artists that have biographies listed in Wikipedia:

Giuseppe Abbati          Saverio Altamura          Cristiano Banti               Luigi Bechi
Giovanni Boldini           Odoardo Borrani           Ferdinando Buonamici
Vincenzo Cabianca     Niccolò Cannicci           Adriano Cecioni             Vito D'Ancona
Serafino De Tivoli        Giovanni Fattori             Egisto Ferroni                Lorenzo Gelati
Francesco Gioli           Silvestro Lega                Stanislao Pointeau        Antonio Puccinelli
Raffaello Sernesi         Telemaco Signorini       Michele Tedesco           Adolfo Tommasi

I am hoping to learn more about each artist though it will take a while for me to translate my whole book.  But after I do (or find a reasonably priced book in English) I will write more on this wonderful group of painters. In the meantime I hope to see more of their work in person on future visits to Italy.