Jan van Kessel I (Antwerp 1626-1679)
Butterflies, a garden tiger moth and other insects with currants; and Bees, a butterfly, beetles and other insects with sweet peas
oil on copper
3 ¾ x 5 ¼ in. (9.5 x 13.3 cm.)
a pair
with Leonard Koetser, London, by 1968, when acquired by the following,
W.J.R. Dreesmann (1913-1971), Wassenaar, and by descent.
London, Leonard Koetser Limited, Autumn Exhibition of Flemish, Dutch and Italian Old Masters, 4 October- 10 December 1968,no. 14.

Lot Essay

Jan van Kessel’s finely observed insect studies are among the most celebrated works of his oeuvre. The artist started painting these images in the 1650s (the earliest date to 1653) and due to their popularity, continued to produce them throughout the next decade. Intimately scaled, these two previously unpublished panels represent a selection of beetles, moths, butterflies and flowers, carefully arranged to invite close inspection. The copper supports are ideally suited to accentuate van Kessel’s delicate and minute brushwork, while imbuing his pigments with an intense luminosity that is all the more striking due to paintings’ plain backgrounds.

Though precedents for van Kessel’s scientifically naturalistic paintings may be found in the work of Jan Breughel the Elder and Balthasar van der Ast, the artist’s most significant source of inspiration was likely the remarkable watercolour gouaches of the miniaturist and illuminator, Joris Hoefnagel (1542-1601). Van Kessel’s fascination with naturalia coincided with a greater drive to systematically study and document the flora and fauna of the natural world that swept through the Netherlands, and particularly Antwerp, in the mid-seventeenth century. In his paintings, van Kessel favoured representing beetles, caterpillars and butterflies, and examples of certain species reappear with some frequency in his works. A similar yellow butterfly and garden tiger moth, for example, appear in a panel now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (inv. no. 309). As Fred Meijer has observed, however, the artist never appears to have painted a particular species of insect in precisely the same way (F.G. Meijer, The Collection of Dutch and Flemish Still-life Paintings Bequeathed by Daisy Linda Ward, Zwolle and Oxford, 2003, p. 230). It would seem that for each new work, van Kessel would study his subjects afresh, thereby ensuring his paintings would correspond to reality with the upmost fidelity while also avoiding repetition.

Insight into van Kessel’s working methods are provided by one of his earliest biographers, Jacob Campo Weyerman (1677-1747), who studied under Jan van Kessel’s son Ferdinand, and would therefore have had access to personal accounts of the artist’s techniques. Weyerman writes in De levens-beschryvingen (1729) that van Kessel '…generally worked from life, and when the Season prevented him from doing so, he used Models that he had himself drawn from life, executed, and for the most part painted in meticulous detail’ (see N. Baadj, Jan van Kessel I (1626-1679): crafting a natural history of art in Early Modern Antwerp, London, 2016, p. 34). Meijer has further noted that van Kessel’s studies were never intended to be read as trompe l’oeil paintings, since the insects and flora are rendered from multiple points of view (op. cit., 2003,p. 229). Hence, in the first of the present works, the garden tiger moth is seen from above, while the common blue butterfly and dragonfly that alight on the white currents at lower right are seen from the side. Like most of van Kessel’s insect studies on copper panels, the present pair may have originally belonged to a larger group, all of which would have been set into a collector’s cabinet, decorating its various drawers and compartments. Displayed in an erudite collector’s Kunstkammer, such a cabinet would likely have contained a variety of specimens and curiosities – real counterparts to van Kessel’s painted representations.

We are grateful to Dr. Fred Meijer for endorsing the attribution on the basis of images. He has dated these works to 1653 on stylistic grounds.

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