THE PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
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.
The 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.
1. See Ertz et al, under literature, pp. 252-3, nos. 330-346, all reproduced.
2. 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.
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