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Jan van Kessel the Elder

A Bouquet of Flowers in a glass Vase

Jan van Kessel the Elder

Signed, lower right: J. van Kessel f
On copper, 11½ x 9 ½ ins. (29.2 x 24.1 cm)
With an Ecce Homo on the reverse, by an unknown hand


Sale, Christie’s, London, 8 July 2008, lot 36, where purchased by the present owner
Private collection, New York, 2017


K. Ertz & C. Nitze Ertz, Die Maler Jan van Kessel, Lingen, 2012, p. 319, no. 539, reproduced


We are grateful to Dr. Fred G. Meijer, Senior Curator, Department of Old Netherlandish Painting, Netherlands Institute for Art History (RKD), The Hague, for confirming the attribution after seeing the picture in the original and for dating it to circa 1650-55.


A bouquet of flowers appears in a simple glass vase, standing on a pedestal, before a dark background.  The graceful arrangement is comprised of two striped tulips, an iris and three pink roses, interspersed with blue convolvulus, a marigold and sprays of citrus foliage bearing creamy white blossom and small unripe fruits.  Two butterflies, a damselfly, a beetle and a caterpillar are attracted by the fragrant blooms.  A fallen leaf rests at the foot of the vase. 

A member of the Brueghel dynasty, Jan van Kessel was born and trained in Antwerp.  He was the grandson of Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625), and nephew of Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-1678).  After serving an apprenticeship with Simon de Vos (1603-1676), he completed his artistic education in the workshop of his uncle Jan Brueghel the Younger.

At the start of his career Jan van Kessel specialised in flower painting.  When he registered as a master in the Antwerp Guild of St. Luke in 1644/45, the eighteen-year-old artist described himself as a blomschilder (flower painter). Floral garlands and bouquets of flowers comprise the major portion of his output in the early to mid-1650s.  Although he went on to develop an extremely wide repertoire of subjects, it was as a painter of flowers that he established his reputation both at home and abroad.  As early as 1649 van Kessel is referred to as a “highly renowned painter of flowers” (I) and the engraved portrait of the artist, which appears in Cornelis de Bie’s Het gulden cabinet of 1662, shows him holding a single rose in his hand and standing before an open window with a flowering rose bush beyond.  In the accompanying verse de Bie praises his talents, in particular his lifelike depiction of flowers:-

“The sheen of his paint reveals to us
The many kinds of knowledge that reside in this Master
So that someone need only cast his gaze upon his pictures
Wherein the nature of flowers is painted,
They are so true to life and nature
(except if Art deceives) that one should want to pluck them,
So vibrant, sweet, and tender, blossoms side by side proclaim
In all their lovely colours van kessel’s fame.  … “(ii)

It was perhaps only natural that the young van Kessel should have been inspired to take up flower painting since his grandfather Jan Brueghel the Elder was one of the pioneers of flower painting when it emerged as a new genre in the first decade of the seventeenth century.  Before 1600, flowers had featured occasionally as details in paintings, but rarely as the main subject.  In the early years of the new century, flowers assumed a greater importance and Brueghel, together with such painters as Jacques de Gheyn II (1565-1629), Roelandt Savery (1576-1629) and Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621), began to produce independent floral still lifes.  Brueghel’s floral bouquets, both large and small, as well as his flower garlands encircling a central religious image, laid the foundations for Flemish flower painting for several generations to come. 

Like his grandfather, Jan van Kessel painted floral garlands surrounding a central image, usually contributed by another painter, as well as still lifes of vases of flowers.  These range in size from large-scale paintings depicting complex floral bouquets to others, like the present example, which are more modest in format.  The artist’s most important work is a series of eight monumental flower pieces, executed on large copper panels, dating from 1652.  The series, which is now split up, was probably a commission for a member of the Spanish high nobility.  Naturally, van Kessel’s development as a flower painter was much influenced by his illustrious grandfather, but his early style also owes much to the work of the specialist flower painter Daniel Seghers (1590-1661), who was himself taught by the elder Brueghel.  Here, the elegant simplicity of the composition, the fluent technique and clear, bright colours, seen against the dark background, are strongly reminiscent of Seghers. 


Jan van Kessel was baptised in the Sint Joriskerk in Antwerp on 5 April 1626.  His father, Hieronymus II van Kessel, was a painter and his mother, Paschasia, was the daughter of Jan Brueghel the Elder.  In 1634/35 he was registered in the Antwerp guild of St. Luke as the pupil of Simon de Vos and he is later said to have received instruction from his uncle and godfather, Jan Brueghel the Younger.  Van Kessel became a master in the guild in 1644/45 as a flower painter.  He married Maria van Apshoven on 11 June 1647 in the Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk in Antwerp: the couple had thirteen children, of whom Ferdinand and Jan the Younger also became painters.  Van Kessel spent time in Spain as court painter to Philip IV and as a captain in the King’s army.  Although the specific dates of his stay are not known, it was most likely from the later 1640s to the early 1650s, based on a series of eight large flower paintings dated 1652, originally in Spain and very likely painted for the King.  Van Kessel was back in Antwerp by 1654 for the birth of his son, Jan the Younger.  The following year, he bought a house, “De Witte en de Rose Roos” (The White and Red Rose), suggesting that he had moved back to the Netherlands by that time.  He died in Antwerp on 18 October 1679 in relative poverty, having mortgaged his home to cover his debts.



i Jan Meyssens, Images de divers hommes d’esprit sublime, Antwerp, 1649. 
ii Cornelis de Bie Het Gulden cabinet van de edel vry schilder-const (The golden cabinet of the noble liberal art of painting, Antwerp, 1662, 409-10).

Jan van Kessel the Elder

1626 - Antwerp - 1679

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