de jonckheere old masters

Jan van Kessel

Study of butterflies

Panel: 13,5 x 19 cm


A growing interest in the idea of 'curiosity', which began in the 16th century, developed primarily in the 17th century. As a result certain collectors came together and exhibited various objects in cabinets of curiosity, such as medals, shells or natural history objects. During this period, new optical technologies, such as the microscope, meant that people could study nature in its minutest details, sparking a fascination in insects among naturalists, collectors and artists. This led to the development of paintings portraying these creatures, especially in Antwerp - Jan van Kessel's home town - and these works decorated many cabinets; this artist's compositions were therefore part scientific study, part works of art. He shows a genuine interest in the miniature world, especially butterflies, which can be found in many of his paintings.

In this Study of butterflies, Jan van Kessel depicts nine butterflies in various positions against a neutral background. While insects are the only animals that feature constantly without a context in Jan van Kessel's work, he wasn't the inventor of this process. A neutral background allows the slightest detail to be illustrated, demonstrating an attentive observation of reality that is almost scientific. At the same time, it allows every specimen to be painted individually, like a study document. The antennae, legs and wing patterns are rendered with a dexterity worthy of a miniaturist, which is all the more remarkable on such a small panel. The composition is well thought out, offering a certain symmetry in the depiction of the butterflies, shown in profile, from the back and from the front for the central specimen. The various parts of their complex anatomy are displayed through a multitude of points of view, expressed through the different shadows which create an impression of relief, as if they had been examined separately.

His traditionally bright, strong colours give way to a more subdued palette here, probably due to the choice of species. Several types of butterfly, identifiable by entomologists, can be found in his work, such as the Wall Brown on the right of the painting. However, the ideal sought by the artist isn't scientific realism, but naturalism.

Although he didn't invent this type of portrayal, he is undoubtedly the most prolific artist of this genre and certainly played a role in its transformation. Paintings of insects form almost a quarter of his known work, which demonstrates his fascination for these creatures, which are exceptionally well rendered. They also take into account the reciprocal interest of the arts and scientific research during this period. The juxtaposition between the astonishing naturalism of his paintings and his technical brilliance transforms this small panel into a masterpiece combining art and nature.

Provenance :
Amsterdam, P. de Boer;
Private collection, Switzerland.

Littérature :
P. de Boer, De helsche en de fluweelen Brueghel: en hun invloed op de kunst in Nederlanden, Amsterdam, de Boer, 1934.

Expositions :
Amsterdam, P. de Boer, 10 February – 26 March 1934.