Lot 10
  • 10

Jan van Kessel the Elder

200,000 - 300,000 GBP
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  • Jan Van Kessel the Elder
  • Butterflies, a moth, ladybird and other insects with a sprig of auricula
  • oil on copper


Private collection, France, since the 18th century;

With Johnny van Haeften, London;

From whom acquired by the present owner in March 2003.


K. Ertz and C. Nitze-Ertz, Die Maler Jan van Kessel. Jan van Kessel der Ältere 1626–1679, Jan van Kessel der Jüngere 1654–1708, Jan van Kessel der 'Andere' ca. 1620 – ca. 1621, Lingen 2012, p. 269, no. 405, reproduced.


The following condition report is provided by Sarah Walden who is an external specialist and not an employee of Sotheby's: These two fine copper panels (lots 10 and 11) have been given firm wooden border supports behind, probably early in the last century. Both have been remarkably well preserved, with immaculate detail perfectly intact and unworn. There has been a recent restoration. Jan van Kessel. Butterflies and moths. This copper panel is inscribed behind. It has in the past had a slight bend in the lower right corner, now supported by the strong wooden backing around the edges, and the small loss in the extreme lower right corner has been retouched. Under ultra violet light another small retouched scratch can be seen at the centre of the left edge. The top and base edges have been marginally rubbed by a past frame and have some minor retouching also. None of the butterflies or moths have been touched in any way and all are exquisitely intact.
"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."

Catalogue Note

Jan van Kessel started painting his celebrated studies of insects in the first half of the 1650s, with the earliest dated examples painted in 1653.1 Though some fine examples are on panel, the majority were painted on copper, the smooth surface of which was better suited to his meticulous and detailed finish. Most of the surviving dated examples, like those here, come from the 1650s, but Van Kessel continued painting these subjects well into the 1660s, although the level of finish of the later examples tends to be less exacting than those from the previous decade. Many are purely studies of insects, but these are sometimes, as here, combined with studies of flowers or branches of fruit, and occasionally shells. As Fred G. Meijer has recently observed, Van Kessel only rarely repeated motifs in these studies, and it seems that for each of them he approached his subjects afresh.2 Many studies in the same panels are clearly observed from different viewpoints and often out of scale to each other, suggesting that each was the result of individual scrutiny. The various insects are carefully and accurately observed, and most species can be identified.3 Although Van Kessel did not intend these panels in a trompe l'œil manner, the butterflies alighting gently on the sprigs of flowers lend each panel a very natural and realistic air.

Although we cannot know for certain of their original function, these tiny coppers most probably originally formed part of a series of plates for a small cabinet, in which a collector would have kept his natural specimens as well as other curiosities in small drawers. Unfortunately over time most of these sets were split up, but surviving examples, such as that sold in these rooms, 11 March 1964, lot 66 (see fig. 1) indicate that the smaller panels formed a border around a larger central panel. Another complete set, for example, painted in 1658, now in the Mellon Collection in Washington (see fig. 2), included sixteen panels of similar size to the present pair of 14.3 x 19 cm. around a central panel of 38.7 by 53 cm.4 The very high quality of the present panel and its companion (see following lot) would suggest that they may be of similar date. The sprig of auricular, for example, recurs in a signed and dated copper of 1659 of very similar size, today at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.5

1. See for example the set of panels of 1653 sold in these rooms 3 July 1997, lots 12–14, for £220,000, £215,000 and £200,000 respectively.

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, p. 229, reproduced fig. 41.1

3. Dr. S. Segal (private communication, n.d.) has identified the following insects in these paintings: Ichneumon fly, Nettle Leaf roller, Raspberry beetle, Brush beetle, Sevenspot ladybird, Hedge Brown butterfly, Magpie moth, Brimstone butterfly, Speckled wood butterfly, Bee-eating beetle and Garden Tiger Moth.

4. Ertz and Nitze-Ertz 2012, p. 252, nos 330–46, and 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, p. 229, reproduced fig. 41.1, and in colour in The Connoisseur, vol. CXXXVII (1956), no. 553, pp. 198–99.

5. Ertz and Nitze-Ertz 2012, p. 262, no. 381.