Monkey Business: The Paintings of Ferdinand van Kessel
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.