Jan Thomas van Kessel
1677-1741 | Flemish
A Peasant Country Scene
Signed (lower left)
Oil on canvas
A quintessential example of Flemish genre painting, A Peasant Country Scene reflects a blend of the playfulness of subject and the technical acuity that defined the style of 18th-century Flemish painter Jan Thomas van Kessel. The artist invites viewers into a merry gathering of peasants that spills across the composition. Highlighted at its center is a couple in the midst of a lively dance, their direct gaze out at the viewer conveying their happiness, while also serving as an effective means to pull the viewer's eye into the festivities underway.
This gathering of merry revelers assumes a stage-like quality as they are separated visually from the far reaches of the composition by a fence that bisects the composition horizontally, underscoring the intimate feel of the foreground scene. Beyond this enclosure, a farmhouse looms over the scene and opens at right onto a sweeping landscape that carries the eye back into the distant horizon. Here, too, the eye is guided appropriately, as figures dot the path down the river toward the steeple of a church just visible along the horizon line. Overhead, a breathtakingly blue sky, dappled with billowy clouds and soaring birds, complements the festive scene.
Such genre paintings were incredibly popular during the 17th and 18th centuries, as they served as a reminder of the simple pleasures of pastoral life. Such scenes first emerged during the 16th century in the wake of the Reformation as artists sought new fields of painting in which to showcase their skill. Key figures such as David Teniers the Younger and the Brueghel family ensured the genre's success into the 17th century when they became highly fashionable. This enduring popularity thereby afforded later artists like van Kessel the opportunity to showcase their talents in conjuring such engaging vignettes.
Van Kessel clearly capitalized on that popularity, as he developed a following for his works that served as a visual escape from the realities of city life. Little is known of van Kessel's life, save for that he was born in Flanders in 1677 and studied both with the masters of Antwerp's Guild of Saint Luke, and even purportedly trained in Paris. Van Kessel then established his studio in his hometown of Antwerp just after the dawn of the 18th century. Aiding in van Kessel's rapid development as an artist was undoubtedly the fact that he descended from a long family line of painters who explored various subjects from botanical studies to portraits. It is arguably van Kessel's inviting scenes of peasants and pastoral life, as seen in this composition, however, that are the most engaging of his family's oeuvre and earned the artist acclaim for his work in Antwerp and beyond.
One point often noted in van Kessel's genre paintings are the references he makes to past masters like Teniers, and these connections are tangible in this painting. The layout of this composition, from the cluster of animated figures in the foreground contrasted against the serene expanse of nature in the distance, seem to be direct quotations of Teniers' work. This reinforces both the placement of this work within the 18th century – following Teniers' lifetime – and within van Kessel's body of work. The connection of this painting to Jan Thomas van Kessel's oeuvre is without dispute, however, as this painting benefits from the scrolling script of the artist's signature along the lower edge.
Only a handful of van Kessel's works, including those held by prestigious collections such as England's National Trust and the Museum Catharijneconvent in the Netherlands, have been fully documented. As a result, it is rare when such a well-preserved example of this 18th-century Flemish genre painting tradition emerges, and it is particularly exciting when such a find contributes to the emerging legacy of a little-understood artist of the era.
Canvas: 40 1/4" high x 54 1/4" wide
Frame: 52 3/4" high x 66 5/8" wide