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Still life with melon

Kessel Jan van

Antwerp 1626 - 1679)

This small work on copper has the same dimensions and support material as the Still Life with Fishes, which also forms part of the Borghese Collection; the two paintings were likely conceived as pendants. The history of these two works is still unknown, as identification of them in the Borghese inventories is difficult, given the generic descriptions that usually accompany still lifes. The attribution to Jan van Kessel the Elder is based on an oral opinion expressed by Federico Zeri, who noted similarities with other compositions by the artist from Antwerp in the Pallavicini collection. In line with this theory, a third painting, the Still Life with Tablecloth, is also ascribed to the Flemish painter, in light of its stylistic affinities with the pendants.


Object details

Inventory
383
Location
Date
mid 17th century
Classification
Period
Medium
oil on copper
Dimensions
cm 11 x 16
Frame

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

Provenance

Borghese Collection, cited in Inv. 1693, room XI, nos 56-57 (?); 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

Commentary

This small work on copper depicting a Still Life with Melon has the same dimensions and support material as the Still Life with Fishes (inv. no. 385), which also forms part of the Borghese Collection. Of uncertain provenance, the pair of works have been ascribed to Jan van Kessel the Elder, the painter from Antwerp who specialised in this genre of small-format paintings. The subject and style of the two compositions are completely in line with the artist’s predilection for scientific representation. His production is indeed characterised by animal and vegetable motifs, depicted with microscopic attention to detail (on Van Kessel, see N. Baadj, Jan van Kessel I (1626-1679): Crafting a Natural History of Art in Early Modern Antwerp, London 2016).

The Still Life with Melon shows a table set with dishes brimming with fruit, a large melon and three crystal carafes containing yellowish liquids. The artist’s propensity for precise description allows us to clearly distinguish the different types of fruit: pears on the largest dish in the foreground, cherries on the plate next to it, and plums in the small bowl on the left of the composition. A knife is visible in the foreground with its handle protruding beyond the edge of the table: this same motif is found in another still life ascribed to Van Kassel, slightly larger, which also forms part of the Borghese Collection (inv. no. 530). The artist in fact often used such a device to emphasise spatial depth and to lend movement to the composition, as we see again in the Still Life with Fishes, in which the heads and tails of the fish extend beyond the table surface.

Like its pendant, the painting is not easily identified in the Borghese inventories, above all in light of the generic descriptions that typically accompany still lifes. A first reference to the work may be contained in the entry of the 1693 inventory which reads, ‘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’ (Della Pergola 1959, Herrmann Fiore 2006, p. 126; Minozzi 2016, pp. 119-120). The entry in the inventory of 1790 presumably referring to the pair of works is even briefer. On the other hand, we can more confidently identify the pendants in the 1833 Inventario Fidecommissario, in which the dimensions and support material are specified; in both cases, the descriptions correspond to the characteristics of our two works. All the inventories ascribed the paintings to Jan Brueghel the Elder, as did Gianni Piancastelli (1891). Yet neither Adolfo Venturi (1893, p. 185) nor Roberto Longhi (1928, p. 215) was convinced by this idea; these scholars rather opted for a more generic attribution to the Flemish school. The name of Van Kessel was first suggested by Federico Zeri in an oral opinion; the critic based his thesis on similarities between the Borghese paintings and other works in the Pallavicini collection. Della Pergola (1959) accepted the attribution to the artist from Antwerp, noting the use of the same decorative motif found on the dishes of the pendants, a detail which confirms their connection, as well as their chronological proximity. More recently, Marina Minozzi (2016) cited the Borghese paintings as works by Van Kessel.

Pier Ludovico Puddu




Bibliography
  • G. Piancastelli, Catalogo dei quadri della Galleria Borghese in Archivio Galleria Borghese, 1891;
  • 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. 167, n. 243;
  • 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. 127;
  • 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.