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Jan van Kessel the Elder (Antwerp 1626 – 1679), A still life study of insects on a sprig of rosemary with butterflies, a bumble bee, beetles and other insects a still life study of insects on a sprig of rosemary with butterflies, a bumble bee, beetles and other insects. Estimate 3,000,0004,000,000 USD. Photo Sotheby’s

signed and dated lower left corner J v . kessel . f. Ao 1653, oil on panel, 4 1/2 by 5 1/2 in., 11.5 by 14 cm.

PROVENANCE: Private Collection, Sweden (by 1934)
Richard Green, London
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon (acquired from the above in July 1982)

EXPOSITION: Amsterdam, Kunsthandel P. de Boer, De Helsche en de Fluweelen Brueghel, En Hun Invloed op de Kunst in de Nederlanden, February – March 1934, cat. no. 295
London, Richard Green, Old Master Paintings, 1982, cat. no. 29

LITTERATUREConnoisseur, June 1982, advertisement, illustrated
E. Greindl, Les peintres flamands de nature morte au XVIIe siècle, Sterrebeek, 1983, no. 3, p. 365
S. Segal, Flowers and nature : Netherlandish flower painting of four centuries, Amstelveen, 1990, fig. 47a, p. 209, illustrated
L. Tongiorgi Tomasi, An Oak Spring Flora, Flower Illustration from the Fifteenth Century to the Present Time, A Selection of the Rare Books, Manuscripts and Works of Art in the Collection of Rachel Lambert Mellon, Upperville, 1997, cat. no. 26, p. 106
F.G. Meijer, Dutch and Flemish Still-Life Paintings bequeathed by Daisy Linda Ward, Waanders, 2003, p. 230, note 6
K. Ertz, Die Maler Jan van Kessel, Lingen, 2012, cat. no. 378, p. 262, illustrated (with erroneous de Boer provenance)

Notes: In this beautiful little panel, Jan van Kessel reveals himself as a keen naturalist and a painter of the greatest refinement.  The painting is not only the product of his brilliant imagination but also of a society in which the appreciation of art and nature was inextricably intertwined.  That same desire to collect and categorize the natural world, an impetus which gave rise to the Kunstkammers and Wunderkammers of the 17th century, inspired the artists of the day to attempt the same in painted form.  Pictures such as this were prized not only for their sheer beauty, but also for their scrupulous treatment of their subject.  Of the painters that produced these images, van Kessel was amongst the most prolific and talented, producing images of flowers, insects, reptiles, animals and rare objects from all over the known world, an exotic allure which only served to make this genre of painting more popular amongst collectors.

The subject matter and compositional style of van Kessel’s nature studies ultimately derive from 16th century model books, but the most direct influence is Joris Hoefnagel, known primarily for his illuminated manuscripts and still lifes on vellum.  Archetypa, a series of 48 engravings after his designs by his son Jacob published in 1592, was sought after by collectors as well as artists who used the designs as models and inspiration for their own compositions.  The plates all had didactic inscriptions, generally referring to the transience of life or the abundance of nature as a revelation of the power and glory of God.

In this delicate composition van Kessel abandons the dispassionate approach of his predecessors, wherein the various flora and fauna are arranged in rows, as if they were specimens in a collector’s cabinet.  Instead he deftly arranges the insects around a single sprig of rosemary so that the butterflies and bee almost seem to be conversing.  Greater emphasis is given to compositional harmony and a pleasing aesthetic while still providing an accurate depiction of the individual creature in question.  Despite the absence of moralizing text, as found in the Archetypa, van Kessel’s audience would have understood the theme of nature as a mirror of God’s power inherent in this small panel.   

This and other similar studies of flora and fauna were often executed in large sets and were occasionally used to decorate the drawer fronts of collector’s cabinets for Wunderkammer, such as that illustrated here (fig. 1) with drawers and little cupboards containing preserved specimen.  Unlike the dried and pinned samples stored within, van Kessel’s painted subjects appear very much alive and are clearly intended to surprise and delight the viewer upon opening the outer doors.


Jan Van Kessel the Elder, Charles II marquetry cabinet with painted interior.

Sotheby’s. Property from the Collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon: Masterworks.New York | 10 nov. 2014, 07:00 PM