The book consists of four chapters referring to the main areas of the work of the Antwerp artist Jan van Kessel I (1626-1679). Clearly structured, Van Kessel’s essential paintings are analyzed on the basis of artistic and sociocultural aspects. The rank order of the thematic groups mirrors the chronology of Van Kessel’s oeuvre.
Initially, it was flower paintings (bouquets and garlands) that established the painter’s name. Here and in his subsequent paintings of insects and other small real or fictive animals developed since the 1650s Van Kessel augmented the brilliance of his works by painting in meticulous brushstrokes on luminous copperplates. In his entomological paintings he demonstrates the ability to manipulate nature through artifice. Painting small creatures like insects enabled him to show craftsmanship on a minute scale. Van Kessel obviously profited from the development of optical technologies like the microscope. In his composite allegorical representations, of which the cycle of The Four Parts of the World in Munich is the most prominent, he established a new pictorial type. They were produced at the peak of his career, 1664-1666, combining the major motifs and subjects represented till then. Here Van Kessel unfolded his entire encyclopedic art.
The Four Parts of the World in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, are the only serial compositions which remain intact in their original state. A central Wunderkammer is surrounded by pictures of nature, distant cities and foreign countries. Baadj points to the oil sketches on the back of the small copper plates. She examines the role of the repetition and reuse of motifs by means of models in Van Kessel’s work and resists the negative aspect of the pasticcio which she considers as a creative transformative imitation. Van Kessel’s portraits of insects against a neutral background show a simulated collection of insects that helped to shape the status of collecting insects.
In the fourth and final chapter on “Gallery Paintings and Cabinets”, Baadj analyzes collecting art and interest in nature of Antwerp’s elite circle of collectors and connoisseurs. However, Van Kessel’s precious looking paintings were not only desired locally but also by wealthy patrons abroad, especially in Spain, the Dutch Republic, France and Germany. Van Kessel plays with the proportions of the paintings in the gallery paintings (miniaturization and magnification). The compartimentalized framing format of the allegorical paintings evoke the luxurious art cabinet. The Munich painting is the artist’s invention of a new pictorial type and an alternative context for displaying small-scale cabinet paintings. Finally, the author mentions the designs for a series of tapestries conceived in a similar way (History of the House of Moncada).
As his major biographers (Cornelis de Bie, Het Gulden Cabinet, Antwerp 1661; Jacob Campo Weyerman, De levens-beschryvingen, The Hague 1729) report, Van Kessel shined by his wit and artistic fantasy, which he expressed as a virtuoso painter of small format pictures. However, Baadj is less interested in analyzing motifs and stylistic elements of the paintings than in presenting a “study of Van Kessel’s artistic enterprise, by which I mean the making, marketing, consumption, and reception of his art, [which] seeks to illuminate the wit and inventiveness of his works and situate them within the broader context of knowledge and collecting (of both art and nature) in early modern Antwerp”(p. 22).
The fascinating and partly bizarre world of Jan van Kessel I with its quasi scientific character has been treated by earlier scholars. In an exhibition in 1973 in the Alte Pinakothek, Ulla Krempel, then curator of Netherlandish paintings, presented a thorough analysis with a biography of this painter still valid today. Klaus Ertz, author of numerous monographs on Flemish painters in the circle of the great masters, published in 2012 together with Christa Nitze-Ertz a catalogue raisonné of Van Kessel’s works, listing 726 paintings. In this way the work of the painter is well documented, described and interpreted. In his classification after genres, Ertz also places The Four Parts of the World at the center of Van Kessel’s oeuvre. Both publications came out exclusively in German. Nevertheless, it would have been extremely useful to mention the catalogue number of the Ertz edition in the text, the picture captions or in the legends of the paintings. In this way the interested reader would have been able to find out more specific information on the individual works.
Nadja Baadj stresses the significant impact of the pictorial repertoire of the Brueghel dynasty, especially of Jan Brueghel I (1568-1625) and of other earlier and contemporaneous Antwerp painters. Jan van Kessel I was the son of the painter Hieronymus van Kessel and his wife Paschasia, daughter of Jan Brueghel I. Mainly trained by his uncle Jan Brueghel II (1601-1678), he lived and worked continuously in Antwerp, where he became a member of the Guild of St. Luke in 1644/45 and where he died. Van Kessel was a purely Antwerp painter, rooted in the iconography of the Antwerp Brueghel dynasty. The mention of Joris Hoefnagel (1542-1600) as an insect painter and another Antwerp influence is problematic since although having been born there and returning regularly until 1576, he did not live there as an artist but worked successively in Munich, Frankfurt am Main and Vienna. He was a European artist. Adding Antverpianus to his name meant no more than signalizing his place of origin. Since Joris mainly produced unique precious items (like the illuminations in manuscripts, cabinet miniatures, miniatures on decorative art objects) for illustrious patrons, Van Kessel hardly had the chance to see many of them. However, the motifs of the Archetypa (1592), engraved after Hoefnagel’s models by his son Jacob Hoefnagel (1573-1632/33), might have had an impact on Van Kessel’s repertoire. Apart from the artistic influences listed in the book, the names of Pieter Holsteijn I (c.1580/90-1662) and Pieter Holsteijn II (c.1614-1673) as animal painters, specifically as insect painters before Van Kessel are missing.
The book, well written and illustrated, is not exclusively designed for art historians – particularly those interested in the sociocultural background of Van Kessel’s work – but also for the interested lover of art and natural history. It is a pity that the research on this Flemish painter is mainly based on publications in English, whereas relevant studies in Dutch and German are largely neglected.
Staatliche Graphische Sammlung Munich, curator emerita