The subject matter and compositional style of van Kessel’s nature studies ultimately derive from 16th century model books, but the most direct influence is Joris Hoefnagel, known primarily for his illuminated manuscripts and still lifes on vellum. Archetypa, a series of 48 engravings after his designs by his son Jacob published in 1592, was sought after by collectors as well as artists who used the designs as models and inspiration for their own compositions. The plates all had didactic inscriptions, generally referring to the transience of life or the abundance of nature as a revelation of the power and glory of God.
In this delicate composition van Kessel abandons the dispassionate approach of his predecessors, wherein the various flora and fauna are arranged in rows, as if they were specimens in a collector’s cabinet. Instead he deftly arranges the insects around a single sprig of rosemary so that the butterflies and bee almost seem to be conversing. Greater emphasis is given to compositional harmony and a pleasing aesthetic while still providing an accurate depiction of the individual creature in question. Despite the absence of moralizing text, as found in the Archetypa, van Kessel’s audience would have understood the theme of nature as a mirror of God’s power inherent in this small panel.
This and other similar studies of flora and fauna were often executed in large sets and were occasionally used to decorate the drawer fronts of collector's cabinets for Wunderkammer, such as that illustrated here (fig. 1) with drawers and little cupboards containing preserved specimen. Unlike the dried and pinned samples stored within, van Kessel’s painted subjects appear very much alive and are clearly intended to surprise and delight the viewer upon opening the outer doors.
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