Two Paintings of Insects and Small Flowers
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.
Cabinets of curiosities, or Kunstkammern – encyclopaedic collections of natural objects and artworks – flourished in Renaissance Europe. They were regarded as a microcosm of the world, and Jan van Kessel’s compositions reflect the sense of discovery and the urge to collect that led to their creation. His tiny still-life paintings were often produced as pairs, and some originally formed part of a series of plates that could adorn the front of the small drawers of the cabinet in which a collector kept his items.
Highly sought after during the artist’s lifetime, Jan van Kessel’s detailed and very lifelike representations of insects, flowers and plants invite the viewer to look closely. He started painting his celebrated studies of insects in the first half of the 1650s, with the earliest dated paintings originating from 1653. These two works – Butterflies, Moths and Insects with Sprays of Common Hawthorn and Forget-Me-Not and Butterflies, Moths and Insects with Sprays of Creeping Thistle and Borage – were probably conceived as pendants and are signed and dated 1654. Although some fine examples like this pair are on panel, most were painted on copper, its smooth surface ideally suited to his meticulous and detailed finish.
Born in Antwerp, van Kessel belonged to a dynasty of famous painters. David Teniers the Younger was his uncle, and his grandfather was Jan Brueghel the Elder. A pupil of the history painter Simon de Vos, van Kessel was apparently also instructed by his uncle, Jan Brueghel the Younger. He continued the family tradition of painting small-scale, brightly coloured and minutely detailed paintings, specialising in flower still lifes, studies of insects and allegorical series representing the elements, the senses or the parts of the world.
In Cognoscenti in a Room hung with Pictures, another Flemish painting in the National Gallery’s collection, we can see a collector’s gallery: sculptures, prints, scientific instruments and natural objects are displayed alongside paintings. One of the connoisseurs turns away from the table in the left foreground and addresses the viewer. He holds up a small-scale study of insects and snails very similar to van Kessel’s paintings, suggesting collectors would take works like these in their hands rather than hang them on a wall.