THE insects in today’s picture choice are so vivid and lifelike that it’s hard to believe they were painted more than 350 years ago.
But the painting on copper panel actually dates from 1657 and is the work of Jan van Kessel the Elder, a versatile Flemish artist known for his meticulous studes of insects and flowers (along with marine and river landscapes).
Born in Antwerp in 1626, van Kessel belonged to a dynasty of famous painters and a couple of his works are in the National Gallery.
But despite the vivid realism of the colours in his sprig of redcurrants lying alongside an elephant hawk moth, ladybird, millipede and other insects, to modern eyes the study may feel uncomfortably lifeless.
But of course that stems from our ability to capture the natural world in all its splendour without trapping, killing and impaling them in cabinets of curiosities, as early natural history enthusiasts were prone to do.
Ironically van Kessel – a keen observer praised in his day for his precision and attention to detail – was perhaps more radical in his artistic approach than we might initially appreciate as 21st-century observers of his work.
“Cabinets of wonder”, as they were also known, were early forerunners of museums – private collections of notable objects which emerged during the 16th century and helped to establish the socioeconomic status of their curators.
Filled with all kinds of disparate objects, from preserved animals, horns, tusks and skeletons to minerals, sculptures or clockwork automata, such collections often helped to promote scientific advancement when their contents were publicised and discussed, and the desire to collect and categorise the natural world inspired artists to achieve the same in painted form.
By the Victorian era, the pursuit of collecting was held in high esteem and formal parlours functioned as private museums with which to impress and amaze guests, the age of scientific exploration and discovery fuelling the popularity of taxidermy as an all-consuming obsession.
But for van Kessel way back in the 17th century, a collection of studies of flowers and insects engraved and published in 1592 in Frankfurt was to influence his work, and his studies differ from the dispassionate approach of predecessors who arranged flora and fauna in rows, as if they were specimens in a collector’s cabinet.
Van Kessel created a more dynamic arrangement of insects, where his message of nature as a mirror of God’s power would not have been lost on contemporary audiences.
As art expert and seminarian Patrick van der Vorst wrote in a recent reflection on the work: “The juxtaposition of Van Kessel’s animated painted insects with the redcurrants and two moths delights the viewer. There is a certain cheerfulness that emanates from these paintings.”
Perhaps that means van Kessel’s painting from 1657 has more in common with the vibrant portraits in modern nature journals than the grim drawers favoured by Victorian collectors, who kept their insects and butterflies so neatly and systematically arranged and ordered.