Drag to Move
Full Screen
Jan van Kessel the Elder

A Still Life Study of Insects on a Sprig of Rosemary, with Butterflies, a Bumble Bee, Beetles and other Insects

Jan van Kessel the Elder

Signed and dated lower left: J v. kessel. F. A. 1653
On panel, 4 ½ x 5 ½ ins. (11.5 x 14 cm)



Private Collection, Sweden (by 1934)
Richard Green, London, 1982
Collection of Mr and Mrs Paul Mellon (acquired from the above in July 1982), Upperville, Virginia, U.S.A., until 2014


The Connoisseur, June 1982, advertisement, illustrated
E. Greindl, Les peintres flamands de nature morte au XVIIe siecle, Sterrebeek, 1983, no. 3,
p. 365
S. Segal, Flowers and nature: Netherlandish flower painting of four centuries, Amsterdam, 1990, p. 209, fig. 47a
L. Tongiorgi Tomasi, An Oak Spring Flora: Flower Illustration from the Fifteenth Century to the Present time, A Selection of 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 & C. Nitze-Ertz, Die Maler Jan van Kessel d. é 1626-1679, Jan van Kessel d. J 1654-1708, Jan van Kessel der ‘Andere’ c. 1620-c. 1661: kritische Katalogue der Gemalde, Lingen, 2012, cat. no. 378, p. 262, Illustrated (with erroneous de Boer provenance).


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


Jan van Kessel the Elder belonged to a famous dynasty of painters.  The grandson of Jan Brueghel the Elder and nephew of Jan Brueghel the Younger and David Teniers the Younger, he was born in Antwerp in 1626,.  He served an apprenticeship with the genre and history painter Simon de Vos and may also have studied with his uncle Jan Brueghel the Younger.  Although described simply as a blomschilder (flower painter) at the time of his registration as a master in the Antwerp guild in 1645, he produced an extensive and varied oeuvre which includes still lifes of flowers, fruit and insects, animal paintings, allegorical landscapes and devotional themes.  

A significant portion of van Kessel’s oeuvre is devoted to exquisitely coloured studies of shells, flowers, insects and other living creatures, seen against a pale-coloured background, of which the present painting is an especially fine example.  It depicts a sprig of flowering rosemary surrounded by two species of butterfly, a bumble bee, a moth, some beetles, a cockchafer bug and several other small insects.  The characteristic features of each plant and creature are described in meticulous detail, right down to the veining of the insects' wings and the hairs on the bee's thorax, but unlike the dead specimens in an entomologist's cabinet, they appear very much alive.  The butterflies and bumble bee appear on the wing, apparently hovering above the stem of rosemary, while the other insects seem to rest upon, or crawl across the flat surface of the panel, casting shadows that create a strongly illusionistic effect.  

This image and others of this same type are rendered with such accuracy that in most cases the individual species can be easily identified.  The careful placement of each specimen on the neutral ground achieves a decorative design, while at the same time displaying the distinctive features of each species to best effect.  Whilst van Kessel probably studied many of his subjects from life, he also without doubt drew upon manuscript illustrations and printed sources.  Close observation of the present composition reveals the use of several different viewpoints and certain inconsistencies in the fall of the shadows, indicating that the artist worked from a number of independent studies, rather than from an ensemble viewed as a whole.  Despite these small discrepancies, the artist's natural history paintings convey a lively impression of the variety and profusion of nature.  

Van Kessel's paintings of this type constitute a very individual category in still-life painting.  Although Jan Breughel the Elder and Balthasar van der Ast both painted a few studies of flowers and creatures on a pale ground, van Kessel made a speciality of the genre.  His minutely observed natural history studies recall the work of the Flemish sixteenth-century miniaturist Joris Hoefnagel, who worked in Germany for the Wittelsbach princes and later in Prague for the emperor Rudolf II, making detailed depictions of flora and fauna in gouache and watercolour on vellum.  Hoefnagel's work became widely known through his Archetypa, a series of emblematic prints published in collaboration with his son Jacob in 1592, illustrating plants, insects and small animals and accompanied by a moralising text in Latin.  

Van Kessel began to paint still lifes of this type in the early 1650s.  The earliest dated examples are from 1653, the year in which this panel was executed.  We know that these paintings were sometimes conceived as a series and occasionally used to decorate collectors' cabinets.  The present painting may once have belonged to such a series, since five other panels of the same size and date survive today, all likewise depicting flowering plants and insects(i).  The earlier panels by the artist may be distinguished from the later ones by their exceptionally fine and detailed execution.

The present painting comes from the collection of Mrs Paul Mellon (widow of the financier and philanthropist Paul Mellon) who died in 2014 at the age of 103.  Throughout her life, Rachel ‘Bunny’ Mellon pursued a love of gardening and among her many activities in this field she designed gardens for her own homes as well as  those of friends, including Jacqueline Onassis for whom she redesigned the White House Rose Garden.  At Oak Spring, the Mellons’ vast estate in Virginia, she amassed a world-renowned collection of rare books and manuscripts, and works of art and artefacts relating to gardening, landscape design, horticulture, botany and natural sciences.


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 Breughel 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  Klaus Ertz & Christa Nitze-Ertz, op. cit., Lingen, 2012, pp. 260-262, cat. nos. 373-377.

Jan van Kessel the Elder

1626 - Antwerp - 1679

Keep me updated about Jan van Kessel the Elder: