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Jan van Kessel

Study of insects, flowers and shells

Copper: 16 x 22 cm
1659
Signed et dated « JOANNES VAN KESSEL FECIT A. 1659 »

introduction

During the second half of the 16th century, the culture of curiosity spread across Europe. Called Kunst und Wunderkammer (‘Room of Art and Wonders’) in Germanic countries, the cabinet of curiosity was usually housed in a large room and included sculptures, mouldings, armour and other even more bizarre objects that were the joy of their collector. Genuine artistic works helped to transform the cabinet of curiosity into an enchanting feast for the senses. Enjoyed by his contemporaries, many works by Jan van Kessel were intended to decorate these famous cabinets. Our painting certainly belongs to this category, replacing acclimatised living insects. The aim of his highly meticulous rendering was to add to the feeling of wonder by playing on the surprise of the viewers, disconcerted by the quality of the trompe-l’oeil.

At a time when Rubens was inspiring art with the spirit of baroque, Jan van Kessel chose to remain faithful to the technique of the Ghent-Bruges school and to continue in the line of the old miniaturists. He was not seeking to revive a genre but to perfect it. While continuing to respect the tradition of his grandfather, Jan ‘Velvet' Brueghel, Jan van Kessel went even further. Despite the blossoming of Dutch still lifes depicting game and other illustrations of living animals amongst the calm of staged objects, our artist decided to paint species of animals filled with mystery and exoticism, rarely seen by city dwellers. He therefore increased his paintings of rare animals from the Indies and America but also of local species, which had rarely been painted up until then by Flemish artists, such as butterflies, frogs, lizards and other entomological curiosities, thus giving his paintings a strange and curious atmosphere that appealed to viewers.

This Study of insects is part of a pictorial movement that affected the whole of still life painting during the Renaissance in the Netherlands and Northern Europe. The influence of the pictorial works of Joris Hoefnagel and Georg Flegel, a 17th century German still-life painter, can be seen in the choice of motifs. Beetles and butterflies and moths can be clearly identified here. The artist juxtaposes and dissects insects and shells that seem to be larger than in real life, thus revealing the use of a magnifying instrument. The microscope, a Dutch invention, marked a decisive advance for zoology compared with the magnifying glass and benefited artists such as Jan van Kessel, who demonstrated his attentive observation of nature.

Following the example of Hoefnagel, Jan van Kessel cleverly copies his use of a light-coloured, neutral background. Furthermore, the use of copper contributes to the cold and luminous rendering of the plate, making this a precise and lively study. Exposing each element to an analytical light, and thus creating subtle and delicate shadows, Kessel endows each motif with the impression of an almost palpable volume. Each detail is depicted with such care and skill, and therefore realism, that we half expect to see the beetles crawl away and the butterflies to fly off.

The freedom he uses in his arrangement of these insects and shells distinguishes him from Hoefnagel, who uses symmetry as the architecture for his studies. He is therefore closer to Georg Flegel through his organised diversity and through the introduction of secondary elements, such as two blue flowers in bud, that bring these minuscule still lifes to life. Here, Jan van Kessel shows all his personality and his desire to give an artistic and original character to his studies. By carefully signing and dating this copper 1652, it is clear our artist intends to show that his painting is not of a scientific nature.

Other studies of insects by Kessel can also be seen in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and also in the Strasbourg Museum of Fine Arts.

Greatly enjoyed and highly sought-after during his lifetime, Jan van Kessel’s studies of insects are still immensely popular today. A talented painter, both in the skill of his brushstrokes and the eclecticism of the themes he depicts, Jan van Kessel proves he is a highly sensitive and astoundingly precise artist through his studies of insects. He thus contributed to making the 17th century the “Golden Age” of Flemish painting.

Provenance :
Private collection