With its forty-one colour and sixty-one black-and-white plates, this beautifully produced volume offers the reader lavish visual fare. The choice, admittedly, is vast: Klaus Ertz’s catalogue raisonné lists no less than 726 works, and the author’s personal database runs to more than 500 entries. The list would be even longer if one were to include the many references to a ‘Jan van Kessel’ who is not always the one under discussion here: Jan van Kessel I (1626–1679). Although there are serious gaps in what is known about the artist’s life, a brief biographical sketch would have been helpful. Instead, the author launches straight into the fulsome praise bestowed on him in Cornelis de Bie’s Het gulden cabinet van de edel vry schilder-const, published when the artist was fifty years old. Yet to take this as an accurate marker of Van Kessel’s early reception is misleading: De Bie was a rhetorician, and moreover one sponsored by the Antwerp alderman, collector and connoisseur Antoon Van Leyen who is eulogized in the same work. The same Van Leyen, who lent Van Kessel a substantial sum of money, puts in an appearance in the artist’s Allegory of Europe (1665). Van Kessel is even raised to the status of Velvet Brueghel in another encomium on which the author leans heavily, this one by Jacob Campo Weyerman – but then Weyerman had trained with one of Van Kessel’s sons, Ferdinand. A similar problem arises in the characterization of Van Kessel’s relation to the Brueghel dynasty, which features so prominently in the eulogies by De Bie and Weyerman. Jan was indeed a grandson of Jan Brueghel I, but to assert that ‘Jan van Kessel was primed to capitalize on his family ties in order to position himself within what was one of the most prominent and enduring artistic dynasties in seventeenth-century Antwerp’ is an admission of failure to problematize that position. (In this respect, the highly insightful chapter ‘Genealogy: the burden of descent and the individuality of style’ in Elizabeth Honig’s recent study of Jan Brueghel should be required reading.) The four chapters focus on Van Kessel’s paintings of flowers and garlands; his clusters of insects; the two versions of his composite series of The Four Parts of the World (one intact in Vienna, the other partial in Madrid); and the paintings for cabinets and painted tapestries. In each chapter, the author sets out to locate the artist within the particular context of late seventeenth-century Antwerp in which art and natural history intersected. Clearly, that context is highly relevant. Yet if familiarity breeds contempt, over-familiarity with the Antwerp scene can lead to neglect of other relevant contexts. For example, although the author mentions the popularity of Van Kessel’s floral paintings among Spanish clients, it is remarkable that she nowhere mentions Juan van der Hamen y León, whose painterly touch was – controversially – preferred to even that of Velázquez by Cassiano dal Pozzo and who was collected along with Brueghel, Rubens, Snyders and others by Jean de Croÿ, II Count of Solre, in his Madrid residence. But the major weakness of the book is what might be called the ‘Freedberg complaint’. Time and again, Van Kessel is credited with an innovation in seventeenth-century Antwerp that was nothing new at all because it had been anticipated in the previous century. For instance, a large part of the discussion of paintings of insects follows Alpers in seeing the development of the microscope as crucial, yet nothing in those paintings requires anything more than keen sight or, at most, a magnifying glass – resources that were freely available in the sixteenth century and, as the Flemish miniaturists show, even earlier. Another artist who escapes mention in the book is the German Adam Elsheimer, the son of a tailor, who brought the keenness of vision required for that profession to bear on the minute details in his highly skilled and admired oils on copper. As for the particular skill in rendering the smallest parts of creatures with tiny and precise brushstrokes, one has only to think of the painter Jacopo Ligozzi (another of the Italian artists conspicuous by their absence in the book) who served several Grand Dukes of Tuscany and also worked for Ulisse Aldrovandi. Nor is there anything particularly new about the ‘pictorial strategy’ of combining insects and reptiles in incongruous scale in relation to one another: a glance at the collections of Aldrovandi, Conrad Gessner or other naturalists of the sixteenth century will easily reveal the same technique. That some further intellectual game is at stake in such juxtapositions remains to be proven. And when the author actually does refer to a sixteenth-century example – Giuseppe Arcimboldo – it is an ill-chosen one, for his technique of combining different creatures to form composite human-looking heads has nothing in common with Van Kessel’s juxtapositions. The author concludes ‘. . . the pictorial subjects and strategies that he employs prompt the beholder to meditate on new visual technologies of magnification, on the ever-increasing body of zoological, botanical, and ethnographic knowledge and new approaches to describing it, on the place of Antwerp at the center of an expanding mercantile and imperial Europe, and on emerging cultures of collecting and curiosity’. Those cultures of collecting and curiosity had already emerged a century earlier. Jan van Kessel certainly deserves a thorough monographic study, but one that sets him firmly within the broader geographical and historical framework to which he belongs, and preferably one without a repetitive and cumbersome jargon that bogs him down in ‘juxtapositions, bifurcations and tensions’ or ‘mental acrobatics’. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.
Journal of the History of Collections – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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