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Garden  and house spiders with grass snakes and caterpillars contorted
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About the item

Jan van Kessel’s intimate cabinet paintings, which combine a minute observation of nature with a wonderfully decorative design, have always been the most prized of his works. Perfectly exemplifying the spirit of the age of enquiry from which they stem, and reflecting the recent invention of magnification that allowed the miniature to be examined and admired in detail, they are all inventive, hyper-realist, and wonderfully attractive; the copper panel comprising one of this pair of pictures however, in which Van Kessel has spelled out his name with a variety of grass snakes and caterpillars, is unquestionably the most innovative of all. In it a plethora of caterpillars, large and small, real and imaginary, worm their way out of an earthy corner into the picture itself, contorting and arranging themselves around and precariously close to a hungry-looking grass snake, to honour their creator by spelling out his name. Van Kessel's celebration of his own name writ-large in bugs is not however an act of self-aggrandisement; it is rather a witty and self deprecating jeux d'esprit, its humour emphasised by the miniscule Fecit and date that follow in the lower right corner.  It and its pendant would have originally been conceived as two of a larger number of copper panels used for the decoration of a collector’s cabinet, decorating the faces of small drawers in which the collector maintained his specimens; most of these sets have unfortunately been split up but at least two do still survive intact such as that sold in these Rooms, 11 March 1964, lot 66, which are still housed in the original cabinet (fig. 1), and the set in the collection of the late Mrs. Paul Mellon which, while still together, are today part of a decorative arrangement around a central, larger, anchor and not affixed to a cabinet as they would (presumably) originally have been.1  The ‘signature’ panel thus becomes the artist’s signature for a larger work of art comprising numerous panels.\nThe two panels almost certainly come from a set similar to that in the collection of the late Mrs. Paul Mellon which comprises sixteen small copper panels (14.3 by 19cm) arranged around one large panel (38.5 by 55 cm). The Mellon set were painted in 1658, the following year to the present examples, and are of the same dimensions and wholly in the same spirt. The earliest dated example of Van Kessel’s insect arrangements is from 1653 and though some fine examples are on oak panel, such as those in the Ward collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, the majority are on copper, the smooth surface best suited to his meticulous and highly detailed finish.2  Most of the surviving dated examples come for the 1650s, like the present examples, but Van Kessel did continue to produce them well into the 1660s, although the level of finish of the later examples tends to be less exacting than those of the previous decade. Many are purely studies of insects, but these are sometimes, as in the second of the two panels here, combined with a branch of fruit or flowers, or studies of shells. Despite their profusion, Van Kessel only rarely repeated motifs in these studies, and it seems for each of them he approached his studies afresh. Indeed, many creatures within the same panel are observed from different viewpoints; in the latter example here most are shown from above, but the redcurrant branch is seen from a three-quarter angle, and the moth lower right from the side. Often, too, they are out scale to each other, suggesting that each was the result of individual scrutiny. Here, most obviously, the grass snake is entirely out of proportion to the caterpillars and spiders around it, just as the ladybird in the other panel dwarfs the butterfly in the lower centre.\n1. See Ertz et al, under literature, pp. 252-3, nos. 330-346, all reproduced.\n2. F.G. Meijer, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Catalogue of the Collection of Paintings. The Collection of Dutch and Flemish still-life Paintings bequeathed by Daisy Linda Ward, Zwolle 2003, pp. 228-231.\nOne signed centre (with the bugs and animals): JoAn vAn/ Kessel and dated lower right: Fecit. Anno. 1657 
GB
GB
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medium

A pair, both oil on copper

creator

Jan van Kessel

condition

The following condition report is provided by Hamish Dewar who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's: Structural Condition The pair of copper panels have been supported with horizontal and vertical batons around the outer edges and this is ensuring secure and stable structural supports. Paint Surface The paint surfaces have reasonably even varnish layers with the exception of areas where small retouchings have been applied which have become slightly matter than the surrounding surface coating. Inspection under ultra-violet light shows small scattered retouchings which are primarily just very small spots and lines, as well as small retouchings around the outer framing edges. In the still life with insects, there is an area of retouching in the upper left and lower right corners which are partially covered by the framing sight edge. There are other very small scattered retouchings. Summary The paintings would therefore appear to be in very good and stable condition and the only work that might be required is revarnishing to ensure more even surface coatings. "This lot is offered for sale subject to Sotheby's Conditions of Business, which are available on request and printed in Sotheby's sale catalogues. The independent reports contained in this document are provided for prospective bidders' information only and without warranty by Sotheby's or the Seller."

dimensions

Each: 15 by 20 cm.; 6 by 7 7/8  in.

exhibition

Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Bruegel, Une dynastie de peintres, 18 September 1980 – 18 November 1980, nos. 278 & 279.

literature

F. Franchini Guelfi, ‘Otto Marseus van Schrieck a Firenze, Contributo all storia dei rapporti franziate figurative nel seicento Toscano, I,’ in Antichità Viva, vol. 16, no. 2, 1977,  p. 15-26; F. Franchini Guelfi, ‘Otto Marseus van Schrieck a Firenze, Contributoo all storia dei rapporti franziate figurative nel seicento Toscano, II’ in Antichità Viva, vol. 16, n° 4, 1977, p. 13-21, reproduced fig. 8; C.A. Breuer in Weltkunst, vol. 47, n° 4, 1977, no. II, reproduced; Tableau, vol. 3, no. 1, 1980, reproduced; W. Laureyssens, M. Klinge, Bruegel, une dynastie de peintres, exhibition catalogue, Brussels 1980, p. 330, cat. nos. 278 & 279, reproduced; E. Greindl, Les peintres flamands de nature morte au XVIIe siécle, Sterrebeek 1983, p. 367, no. 65 (the former; p. 368, no. 135 (the latter); R. Lambert in L. Tongiorgi Tomasi (ed.), An Oak Spring Flora: flower illustration from the fifteenth century to the present time, New Haven 1997, p. 105, no. 26; K. Ertz & C. Ertz Nietze, Die Maler Jan van Kessel, Lingen 2012, p. 283, no. 450, reproduced (the former); p. 278, no. 436, reproduced as no. 435.

provenance

With William Hallsborough Gallery, London, 1956; no. II; With David Koetser, Zurich, circa 1976-80; Private collection; With Johnny Van Haeften, London; Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2008.

signedDate

One signed centre (with the bugs and animals): JoAn vAn/ Kessel and dated lower right: Fecit. Anno. 1657 

consignmentDesignation

The Property of a Gentleman

creator_nationality_dates

Antwerp 1626 - 1679


*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.

*Note: The price is not recalculated to the current value. It refers to the actual final price at the time the item was sold.


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