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Still life with fishes

Kessel Jan van

Antwerp 1626 - 1679)

The Still Life with Fishes was probably conceived as the pendant of the Still Life with Melons – also part of the Borghese Collection – given that the two works share the same subject, dimensions and support material. Federico Zeri was the first scholar to ascribe the pair to Jan Van Kessel the Elder of Antwerp. The same decorative motif is found on two of the dishes in both works, a detail which further confirms their common origin. In addition, the pendants are similar in terms of subject matter and style to a third painting attributed to Van Kessel, the Still Life with Tablecloth, also held by the Galleria.

Object details

Mid-17th century
oil on copper
cm 11 x 16

late 18th-/19th-century frame (part of a polyptych), 24 x 84.5 x 4 cm


Borghese Collection, cited in Inv. 1693, room XI, nos 56-59 (?); Inv. 1790, room VII, nos 124-125 (?); Inventario Fidecommissario Borghese 1833, p. 27, nos 20-21; purchased by Italian state, 1902.

Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1952 Augusto Vermehren


Of unknown provenance, the Still Life with Fishes may be one of the ‘four small paintings on copper, roughly half a span high, of different fruits and other foods, with black frames, all four listed as no. 300, by Monsù Brugo Novecchio’, described in the 1693 Borghese inventory (Della Pergola 1959, Herrmann Fiore 2006, p. 126; Minozzi 2016, pp. 119-120). If this is the case, then two other paintings in the Borghese Collection may form part of this quartet: the Still Life with Melon (inv. no. 383), which has the same dimensions and support material as the work in question, and which was probably conceived as its pendant; and the Still Life with Tablecloth (inv. no. 530), also a work on copper, though slightly larger than the other two. The attribution to Jan Brueghel the Elder was repeated in the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario and upheld by Gianni Piancastelli (1891, p. 390) but rejected by both Adolfo Venturi (1893, p. 185) and Roberto Longhi (1928, p. 215) in favour of the more generic Flemish school.

The first to propose the name of Jan Van Kessel was Federico Zeri, who gave his opinion in an oral conversation reported by Paola Della Pergola (1959) in her catalogue of the Borghese Collection. Della Pergola accepted the new attribution on the basis of similarities with other works by the artist in the Pallavicini collection, noting also that the same decorative motif found on the dishes depicted in two smaller works provide further evidence that they were intended as pendants.

As in other paintings by Van Kessel in the Borghese Collection, the focal point of the Still Life with Fishes is a table on which foods have been laid out. Compared to the other works, however, it is the only one that includes animals and shows a greater quantity of vegetables than fruits. Fishes of various dimensions are visible in the foreground, some of which with their heads of tails leaning over the table edge, a motif also used by the artist in other works with different objects to create an effect of depth.

The subject is a typical one of Van Kessel’s oeuvre, which focuses on the representation of the natural world by means of a particularly descriptive style and great attention in the rendering of details. His meticulous approach in depicting each animal or vegetable element allows the viewer to clearly distinguish the different species. The small format and the choice of a copper support are additional elements characterising his production, as is evident in the two other paintings in the Collection mentioned above (on the artist, see N. Baadj, Jan van Kessel I (1626-1679): Crafting a Natural History of Art in Early Modern Antwerp, London 2016).

Pier Ludovico Puddu

  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891, p. 390;
  • A. Venturi, Il Museo e la Galleria Borghese, Roma 1893, p. 185;
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle Gallerie Italiane, I, La R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 215;
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese. I Dipinti, II, Roma 1959, p. 168, n. 244;
  • K. Herrmann Fiore, Galleria Borghese Roma scopre un tesoro. Dalla pinacoteca ai depositi un museo che non ha più segreti, San Giuliano Milanese 2006, p. 128;
  • M. Minozzi, La natura morta nel sequestro Borghese e negli inventari della Galleria, in L’origine della natura morta in Italia. Caravaggio e il Maestro di Hartford, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Galleria Borghese, 2016-2017), a cura di A. Coliva, D. Dotti, Milano 2016, pp. 119-120.