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Insects with Common Hawthorn and Forget-Me-Not
Jan van Kessel the Elder

Meticulously painted insects, flowers and berries are laid out on a plain creamy white surface without any overlap. Each specimen is carefully observed and identifiable. All of this might give us the idea that we are looking at a scientific illustration, but these insects appear very much alive: the seemingly casual arrangement, the light effects and the shadows cast give the objects a remarkably lifelike appearance.

The black veined white butterfly balances on the leaf on a common hawthorn; a caterpillar and an earwig crawl along its woody sprig. A common blue butterfly sits on a different leaf, while another rests on one of the juicy red berries. Other insects – a hornet, a yellow pied hoverfly, a garden tiger moth, two more earwigs, a dung beetle and a fire bug – are arranged in rows at the top and bottom of the panel, contrasting with the more natural looking arrangement of the insects and plants in the middle.

Key facts
Artist Jan van Kessel the Elder
Artist dates 1626 - 1679
Full title Butterflies, Moths and Insects with Sprays of Common Hawthorn and Forget-Me-Not
Group Two Paintings of Insects and Small Flowers
Date made 1654
Medium and support Oil on wood
Dimensions 11.8 × 14.7 cm
Inscription summary Signed; Dated
Acquisition credit Gift from the collection of Willem Baron van Dedem, 2017
Inventory number NG6666
Location in Gallery Room 17a
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Two Paintings of Insects and Small Flowers

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Cabinets of curiosities, or Kunstkammern – the early ancestors of the modern museum – flourished in Renaissance Europe. These encyclopaedic collections of natural objects and artworks were regarded as a microcosm of the world, and Jan van Kessel’s detailed and lifelike representations of insects, flowers and plants conformed to this style of collection and display.

The artist’s paintings were highly sought after by collectors during his lifetime. His tiny still-life paintings were often produced as pairs; some originally formed part of a series of plates that could decorate the front of the small drawers of the cabinet in which a collector kept his specimens.

Van Kessel belonged to a famous dynasty of painters, and his style and technique are similar to that of his grandfather, Jan Brueghel the Elder.

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