de jonckheere old masters

Jan van Kessel

Pair of vases of flowers: Tulips, roses and other flowers in a glass vase with butterflies on a table; Tulips, roses and other flowers in a glass vase with butterflies and a caterpillar on a table

Coppers: 10,8 x 8 cm and 10,9 x 7,8 cm


When Jan van Kessel the Elder was made a master of the Antwerp guild of painters, it wasn’t as a simple ‘schilder’ (painter) but as a ‘blomschilder’ (floral painter). As early as 1644, the young artist confirmed his fondness for floral representations. Also clarifying the path he chose to follow, his engraved portrait after Hubertus Quellinus (1619 – 1687) bears the epigraph "highly renowned floral painter”.

Van Kessel owes his success to his paintings of festooned garlands surrounding a cartouche, which often depicted biblical scenes or ones from classical mythology. But it was his small paintings portraying solitary vases brimming with flowers that really earned van Kessel his success; as proven by our two small panels. The fashion for these precious and delicate works created a considerable stir in 17th century Europe; and the Southern Netherlands, as well as the United Provinces of Holland, were the uncontested melting pot for this art. The artists based their work on the publications of botanical collections and gardens, which were becoming increasingly widespread, to satisfy both private and princely commissions. Furthermore, the flourishing trade in bulbs and other varieties which sometimes came from afar, provided painters with a tireless source of shapes and colours.

While Jan van Kessel initially practised his art by copying the works of this grandfather, ‘Velvet’ Brueghel, the grand master of bouquets, he developed his own particular style over time. The almost systematic presence of small insects dotted on the delicate buds and breathtaking corolla placed in a fine glass recipient are what make his work so recognizable. Standing out against a plain, generally dark background, or white in exceptional cases, the bouquets are presented in the utmost simplicity, with each flower given a place of honour. The subtle reflection of light on the glass containers adds brilliance to these small formats that were highly sought after by owners of cabinets of curiosity. What better then than copper to receive these incredible naturalist representations? Indeed, the metal increases the luminosity by reflecting the light’s rays through the layer of oil filled with pigments, applied in successive fine layers.

The meticulous execution and studied aesthetic harmony are what make our pair of bouquets stand out. In addition, their very small format offers art-lovers of yesterday and today a pair of precious jewels that would be a great pleasure to collect. In both panels, a translucent stem glass holds the highly varied bunch of cut flowers. There is the famous variegated tulip, the peony, the carnation and the convolvulus. The artist plays with the contrasting sizes and volumes of the different flowers, presented as buds or so open that the petals have fallen and are scattered about the wooden ledge. There is no need to check whether the glass can truly hold these vertical arrangements. The painter has another goal: the plausibility of the composition is generally overruled by the realism governing his hand for each of the motifs. Here, the brush has the delicate mission of laying down on copper the stunning beauty and extreme refinement of the flowers presented as jewels. The viewer is invited to admire and contemplate. While our two small paintings aren’t signed, the mark of van Kessel is recognisable through the presence of insects here and there on the plants and the ledge. The red shell of some of the insects heightens the translucence of the white roses in the middle. And cabbage white butterflies perched on the end of a leaf or stalk crown the bouquets. Similar works include a Vase of flowers signed "I.V. Kessel Fecit" at the Leger Gallery in London or the Pair of bouquets in a glass vase which passed through our gallery in 2000.

Provenance :
Private collection, Netherlands;
A. van der Meer, Amsterdam;
Pieter de Boer, Amsterdam, 1990;
Private collection.