Book Reviews -- Jan Van Kessel by Alice I. Davies

By Giltaij, Jeroen | The Art Bulletin, December 1994 | Go to article overview

Book Reviews -- Jan Van Kessel by Alice I. Davies


Giltaij, Jeroen, The Art Bulletin


ALICE I. DAVIES

Jan van Kessel

Doornspijk: Davaco, 1992. 335 pp.; 12 color ills., 400 b/w. $250.00

Does it make sense to write a monograph of 335 pages on an artist like Jan van Kessel (1641-1680), who is probably only known to specialists in the field of Dutch landscape painting of the 17th century Will there be books in the future on each of the thousands of painters that counted within Dutch culture of that period?

Alice Davies has worked on painters in the immediate circle of Jacob van Ruisdael before. In 1978 she published a book on Allart van Everdingen; after that she decided to study van Kessel. Van Kessel was a follower of Ruisdael, Meindert Hobbema, van Everdingen, Jan Wijnants, and Jan van de Cappelle. As the author states: "The principal task of this study was to locate and identify his works, many of which still lie buried under the names of these other artists" (p. 2). Davies formulates the goal of her study thus: "At the crux of the matter is whether Jan van Kessel is regarded as an imitator without independent merit or as a master who imitated others while preserving redeeming qualities all his own" (p. 7).

In the end, Davies finds that van Kessel "was a landscape painter of unexpected breadth and originality and also a draughtsman with the ability from the very first to capture his environment on paper with a sure and cogent touch" (p. 12). This new recognition of van Kessel as an artist worth studying remains to be evaluated. The author first reconstructs the artist's life and discovers that his year of birth is 1641 (until now van Kessel's dates were uncertain). She also claims that the artist was a friend of Hobbema, who was present at the baptism of van Kessel's son Thomas in 1675. It is therefore possible that Hobbema and van Kessel were connected, but was van Kessel really a pupil of Ruisdael, as Davies believes

Many landscape painters were influenced by this great artist, but the only pupil we are sure of is Hobbema. The huge impact that Ruisdael had must not be underestimated, and one can hardly assume that all his followers were actually pupils. In her book as a whole, Davies tries to defend the qualities of her artist as a decidedly minor master: "Throughout his career [van Kessel] figures more frequently as a selective imitator than as an out-and-out copyist" (p. 33); his first four years "provide a study of the efforts of a minor artistic personality to establish himself in a circle of major talents" (pp. 42-43). The image in the end is of an artist who was not much more than an imitator of other landscape artists of his time. In the catalogue that follows the text, Davies gives some striking examples of van Kessel's indebtedness to other painters: the painting formerly in the collection of Professor Singer, Prague (cat. no. 108), is based on the upper part of a Waterfall by van Everdingen, in Stockholm; a Waterfall in Darmstadt (cat. no. 57) is a duplicate of another painting by van Everdingen; a Winter Scene (cat. no. 116) is a variant of a painting by van de Cappelle. Van Kessel is here more or less unmasked as a painter without much power of invention, who took paintings by his companions as his models.

Davies's book follows the traditional scheme for artists' monographs: first a biography of the painter, and then a description of his works in chronological order. Here she can discern three periods: the early years (1661-64), a middle period (1665-69), and a late phase (1670-80). It is difficult to see genuine artistic development in this oeuvre, yet long study of the artist apparently makes it possible to discern at least a chronology. After this analysis of the order of the paintings, Davies discusses van Kessel's drawings. In this medium, too, van Kessel was a follower --of Simon de Vlieger, Anthonie Waterloo, Willem Schellinks, and Ruisdael. The author concludes with a chapter devoted to "minor related painters," where only Isaac Koene, Jacob Salomonsz van Ruisdael, Guillam Du Bois, Joris van der Haagen, and Anthonie van Borssum are briefly discussed.

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