Luis Meléndez was the greatest still life painter of 18th–century Spain and ranks as one of the greatest painters of the genre in all of Europe. Meléndez's Still Life with Figs and Bread contains many elements characteristic of the master's works. His talent for rendering everyday objects with exacting detail is evident, as are his marvelous effects of color and light, which usually come from the left, and his subtle variations of texture. The bone handle of a kitchen knife projects over the edge of a rough, wooden tabletop into the viewer's space. The eye is led in a zigzag line from the plate of green and purple figs to the crusty bread, to a small barrel and wine flask, and finally to a cork keg or cooler. This cork barrel, with wooden staves, a copper–handled container inside, and possibly snow or ice at the top appears in several of his still lifes. The dish, whose undulating rim marks it as de castañuela (in the castanet style) from the Talavera region of Spain, is also a familiar object from his kitchen. The smooth bone knife handle, the subtle variations in the skin and hues of the figs (leathery green and iridescent bluish–purple), the crusty bread, the wood grain of the bucket, the rubbery cork, and the shiny glass and copper surfaces show Meléndez's mastery at portraying contrasting textures through the skillful manipulation of the fluid properties of oil. The vertical format and the combination of ordinary fruits and kitchen utensils placed in close contact with one another suggest a date in the 1760s, before the artist’s larger and more ambitious horizontal canvases of the 1770s.
An x–ray image done at the time of the painting's acquisition by the National Gallery reveals that Meléndez originally painted a large wedge of cheese at the lower right, large, highlighted reddish berries instead of figs, and a few berries in place of the knife on the left. He also reworked the contour of the bread, the upper contour of the cooler, and the highlights on the flask.
(Text by Gretchen A. Hirschauer, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
Mlle Anna Petit, by c. 1895; by descent in her family. Private collection, France. (Edward Speelman, Ltd., London). (Derek Johns, London); purchased 15 February 2000 by NGA.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, cover and repro.
- Luis Meléndez: Bodegones [Luis Meléndez: Still Lifes], Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid; National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, 2004, no. 2 (Spanish catalogue), no. 3 (Irish catalogue), repro.
- Luis Meléndez: Master of the Spanish Still Life, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2009-2010, no. 16, repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 270-271, no. 219, color repro.
- Cherry, Peter. Luis Meléndez: Still-Life Painter. Madrid, 2006: no. 95, repro. and on cover, as Still Life with Plate of Figs, Bread and Receptacles.
- "Art for the Nation: The Story of the Patrons' Permanent Fund." National Gallery of Art Bulletin, no. 53 (Fall 2015): 17, repro.