Born in Antwerp, Jan van Kessel the Elder belonged to a dynasty of famous painters. His grandfather was Jan Brueghel the Elder, and David Teniers the Younger was his uncle. He was a pupil of the history painter Simon de Vos, but was apparently also instructed by his uncle Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601–1678).
Van Kessel joined the Antwerp guild of Saint Luke in 1645 and specialised in flower still lifes, meticulous studies of insects, and allegorical series representing the four elements, the senses, or the parts of the world.
Even though van Kessel was captain of the Civic Guard in Antwerp and had a productive career, he had numerous debts when he died in 1679.