Monkey Business: The Paintings of Ferdinand van Kessel

by Christine Cariati

Ferdinand van Kessel, Monkey’s Feast

Ferdinand van Kessel’s (1648-1696) humorous and engaging monkey paintings feature many types of monkeys and apes indulging in various human activities. Like other painters of the 17th century, van Kessel was very interested in the natural sciences and painted all kinds of specimens and wildlife very much in the cabinet of curiosities style. The monkey paintings are a hybrid of his natural history and allegorical work.

Ferdinand van Kessel, Landscape with Birds, 1681
Oil on copperplate
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

In the history of western art, monkeys have appeared in several different guises. Earlier on, monkeys were often depicted chained or tethered—representing man trapped by his senses and earthly desires. Monkeys were also often depicted eating an apple, symbolizing man’s fall from grace. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as interest in natural history grew, monkeys in art were no longer symbols of sin and enslavement, but mimics of the foolish behavior of humans. It is only in some of the great natural history illustrations of the 19th century, that monkeys, drawn in their natural habitats, are depicted with autonomy, respect and dignity–although it is still very rare that human characteristics and expressions are not attributed to them.

Albrecht Dürer, Virgin and Child with Monkey, c. 1498
Copperplate engraving
The British Museum

18th century engraving from a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder (1568-1625)
Courtauld Institute, London

Frans Francken and David Teniers, The Interior of a Picture Gallery, c. 1615-50
Oil on panel
Courtauld Institute, London

There is not much information available about Ferdinand van Kessel. All that I’ve really been able to determine is that he is the son of the great Jan van Kessel of Antwerp, and thus a part of the extended van Kessel/Brueghel family that produced so many great artists.

Circle of Jan van Kessel, Study of Birds and Monkeys, c. 1660-1670
Oil on copper
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Circle of Jan van Kessel, Study of Birds and Monkeys, c. 1660-1670
Oil on copper
National Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Ferdinand’s father, Jan van Kessel (1626-1679), was the grandson of Jan Brueghel, and largely continued in his tradition, painting still-lifes of flowers, insects and animals. Jan van Kessel also painted allegorical works depicting animals, the four elements and the senses. Accuracy was very important to him—he worked both from nature and scientific texts. Jan van Kessel worked mostly in oil on copper—his paintings are small-scale gems, intensely colored and filled with meticulous detail.

Jan van Kessel was very influenced by the scientific naturalism of Joris Hoefnagel (1542-1600), particularly his studies of flowers and insects. A folio of fifty-two of Hoefnagel’s engravings, Archetypa studiaque patris Georgii Hoefnagelii, based on his father Georg’s watercolor paintings, was published in Frankfurt in 1592.

Joris Hoefnagel, detail of frontispiece from Archetypa studiaque patris Georgii Hoefnagelii

Jan van Kessel, A Cockchafer, Beetle, Woodlice and other Insects, with a Sprig of Auricula, c. 1650s
Oil on copper
The Ashmolean, Oxford

Here are three more of Ferdinand van Kessel’s monkey paintings. I wasn’t able to find out where they are located, so I’ll assume for now that they are in private collections. I’d love to know more about them, if anyone has information, please join the conversation.

Ferdinand van Kessel, The Painting Monkey

Ferdinand van Kessel, Apes Celebrating in the Kitchen

Ferdinand van Kessel, A Monkey Smoking and Drinking with an Owl

In the future, Venetian Red will do a second installment about primates in art, discussing the work of Chardin, Watteau and others—leading up to the multitude of monkey paintings as social commentary in the age of Darwin.

4 Responses to “Monkey Business: The Paintings of Ferdinand van Kessel”

  1. Randy figures Says:

    Monkeys deserve to be represented in a dignified way. But isn’t it typically human nature to paint everything in man’s image–no matter how foolish!

  2. ana Karen Magdaleno Says:

    Monkey´s feast is currently in “San Carlos Museum” in Mexico city with al least 2 other paintings made by him in the “Barroco del Norte de Europa” section.

  3. i actually have a monkey painting from holland in the 1800’s and would like to find out about other artists who have painted similar paintings in response to darwins theory.

  4. He depicted the nobility as apes to suit his clients who were against the nobility. The noble class selfidentified as blacks with little heraldic Moors. They had brown and black complexions. All the writers of the Enlightenment were against the noble rule and likened the nobles, the Blacks, to apes.

    Egmond Codfried
    curator Suriname Blue Blood Is Black Blood Museum
    The Hague, Holland

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