The practice of personifying the Five Senses as women originally found its roots in sixteenth-century graphic works in the Netherlands. For van Kessel, however, the most direct influence for the subject stemmed from Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), in whose workshop he had trained before becoming an independent master in Antwerp in 1645. Brueghel produced a famous series of the Senses in collaboration with Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) between 1617 and 1618 (Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, inv. nos. 1394-1398), which appear to have established something of a standard for such representations.
While the impetus of the design for the present picture came from the work of Jan Brueghel the Elder, van Kessel in fact owed the composition of this painting to his uncle, Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-1678), whose Allegory of Sight (Philadelphia, Museum of Art, inv. no. 656) dates to 1660, around the same time as the present picture. It shows much similarity in the composition, the objects displayed and the view of Antwerp, seen from the River Scheldt through the colonnade at the right. The artist of figures in the present work was previously identified as Pieter von Avont (1600-1652), but after recent inspection of the painting, Dr. Bert Schepers identified them as the work of Victor Wolfvoet II, with whom van Kessel collaborated on a number of occasions. Personifying Sight of Vision, the female figure has typically been read as Venus, but instead may be intended as Juno personifying Optica, a trope popularised by the engraving used as the frontispiece of Francois d’Aguilon’s Six Books Of Optics. The Allegory of Sight would likely have originally been part of a series of five pictures, with surviving examples of van Kessel’s Allegory of Touch (Private collection, Sotheby’s, London, 8 July 2010, lot 129) and Allegory of Taste (Private collection, Christie’s, London, 11 July 2001, lot 1), giving a good indication of the appearance of the other works in the series.
Van Kessel’s present cabinet is adorned with treasures of art: a painting in the reverse shows a boar hunted by dogs, evidently taken from a picture by Frans Snyders (1579-1657). The numerous gilt bronze sculptural groups which line the shelves of the cabinet all derive from extant works by Giambologna, including his Lion attacking a Horse (modelled on a large, fragmented Greek sculpture restored in Rome in 1594; Rome, Musei Capitolini, Palazzo dei Conservatori); Rape of the Sabine Women (Florence, Piazza della Signoria, Loggia dei Lanzi); Hercules and Nessus (Florence, Piazza della Signoria, Loggia dei Lanzi); The Abduction of Deianira (Paris, Musée du Louvre, inv. no. OA 11896); and Lion attacking a Bull (Paris, Musée du Louvre, inv no. OA 6062), all faithfully rendered. Presented in this way, van Kessel’s Allegory appears to reproduce the methods with which collections of art and curiosities were displayed and viewed in his lifetime. The inclusion of the monkey in the foreground, inspecting a painting with a pair of spectacles, adds a touch humorous parody of contemporary connoisseurship to the picture.
We are grateful to Dr. Bert Schepers for his assistance in the cataloguing of this lot and for proposing the attribution of the figures to Victor Wolfvoet II after first-hand inspection.