Van Kessel's brilliant bugs

Flemish and Dutch still-life painters of the 17th century often reflected the growing interest of their time in meticulous observation and precise recording of the minutiae of nature. They introduced insects and shells, for instance, as little punctuation marks in large-scale, elaborate confections of flowers and fruit. These details display an obvious delight in the skill involved in their depiction, as well as an undoubted pleasure in the variety of nature's forms and colors, even at its most minute and fragile.

Jan van Kessel was one such Flemish still-life painter, but he took this close-up relationship of natural history with realist art a stage further.

In the early 1650s, he started making small, jewel-bright paintings, often on copper, which brought together against a plain, light background miscellaneous collections of fauna and flora. "Collections" is the apt word, because these pictures do not have a conventional pictorial space or realistic setting, like objects on a table, but have more the character of specimens set out in a 17th-century collector's "cabinet of curiosities" or private museum. It is assumed that these painted congregations of insects and butterflies were actually made for display in collectors' cabinets.

However, Van Kessel did not paint his brilliantly convincing creatures as dead specimens. They are living, and have apparently just alighted on the surface of his painting, even casting shadows on it. These works have more the air of art than science.

It is often said that accurate scientific study of the natural world truly began in Europe after the medieval period. But medieval bestiaries and manuscripts sometimes featured wonderfully firsthand illustrations of birds, flowers, and insects. More exotic species, not known to the illustrators, were more likely to be "hand-me-down" fictions.

Work like Van Kessel's in the 17th century has something in common with the medieval firsthand depictions of nature. They seem similarly direct and fresh, as if the artist has preserved the wonder of his first encounter, when a child, with minute creatures that adults often crassly overlook.

There are also precedents in the 15th and 16th-century Renaissance. da Vinci and Drer both persistently depicted intense natural details.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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