Luis Meléndez, who was born in Naples, Italy, in 1715, and was initially trained in the art of miniature painting by his father, Francisco Antonio, began his career with great promise, studying at the provisional royal academy of art in Madrid, an institution that his father helped to establish. Both Meléndez and his father were expelled from the academy, an event that significantly damaged the son's career prospects. After studying on his own in Italy, Meléndez returned to Madrid in 1753 to assist his father with a commission to illuminate choir books for King Ferdinand VI.
In 1771 Meléndez received a commission from Charles III, Prince of Asturias (later King Charles IV), and his wife, Princess Maria Luisa, to paint an extensive series of still lifes for the New Cabinet of Natural History in the Royal Palace. The commission was intended to depict "the four Seasons of the Year -- with the aim of composing an amusing cabinet with every species of food produced by the Spanish climate."
The royal commission, a central event in Meléndez's life, led to modest success with other patrons, although it was cancelled abruptly in 1776. By 1778 these rich and lifelike paintings were moved from the New Cabinet of Natural History to the recently constructed Casita del Príncipe at El Escorial outside Madrid.
Although Meléndez aspired to the more prestigious post of royal painter, all four of his petitions to the king were denied. In 1780 Meléndez died shortly after declaring himself a pauper, and his reputation sank into relative obscurity.
Overshadowed for centuries by the work of fellow Spaniard Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Meléndez's paintings have received increasing attention and appreciation from scholars as well as collectors. Modern scholarly study of Meléndez's art, including extensive technical examination, has taken on new momentum in the last few decades. The National Gallery of Art acquired Still Life with Figs and Bread (c. 1770) in 2000, which inspired the Meléndez exhibition presented in Washington in 2009.