Biodiversity in the Art of Carel Pieter Brest Van Kempen

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The world is filled with artists who aspire to faithfully render nature into art. But they are either misguided or uninformed, and certainly deluded. An artist cannot transcribe what he sees in nature into art; he can only translate it through his medium. As the eminent aesthetician, E.H. Gombrich wrote*, “ . . . the correct portrait, like the useful map, is an end product on a long road through scheme and correction. It is not a faithful record of a visual experience but the faithful construction of a relational model.”

Several other insights from Gombrich serve well to set the stage for an exhibition of art by Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen. Of conception and perception, Gombrich wrote, “ . . . all art originates in the human mind, in our reactions to the world rather than in the visible world itself, and it is precisely because all art is ‘conceptual’ that all representations are recognizable by their style.” Of style, Gombrich said, “Styles, like languages, differ in the sequence of articulation and in the number of questions they allow the artist to ask; and so complex is the information that reaches us from the visible world that no picture will ever embody it all. That is not due to the subjectivity of vision but to its richness.”

Since wildlife is central to the imagery that Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen paints, he is generally thought of as a “wildlife artist.” But this is not how I think of him, nor how I think he should be remembered. I think of Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen as a wildlife artist with imagination. In the world of wildlife art, this is no small distinction. Because most wildlife artists aspire to faithfully render nature into art, they suffer from a corollary that is equally false: in order to render nature into art, a painter must paint every minute detail to perfection. For many wildlife artists today, this is pursued through heavy reliance on reference photography. While it is impossible, as Gombrich said, to render nature into art, it is possible to construct a relational model through whatever style an artist chooses. Like many of his colleagues, Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen chooses to paint in a detailed, representational style, but that’s where the similarity ends.

Because Brest van Kempen is a thinker at heart, he begins his creative process where he should, at the beginning, by using his imagination to conceptualize a painting before he ever puts pencil to paper. To transform his concepts into composition and design, he works his ideas out through preliminary sketches. After he is satisfied with a concept, only then does he embark on a final painting. Throughout the process, Brest van Kempen employs a rich vocabulary of principles, to arrange elements, such as line, color, space, and point of view, in ways that give him his own distinctive, individual style.

Whereas the number of elements and principles in art is constant, the number of ways to combine them is infinite. This is important because it permits individual painters to express themselves in their own style. In composition the elements (e.g., color, value, line, texture, shape, and space) are like building blocks, while principles (e.g., balance, dominance, economy, emphasis, variety, gradation, movement, harmony, rhythm, proportion, space, variety) are like tools that artists use to assemble elements. Brest van Kempen’s ability to embody his imaginative concepts through his signature style, and well-honed technique, are hallmarks of his paintings.

Another important part of Brest van Kempen’s process is a constant push for new knowledge. About the ecology of his paintings, Brest van Kempen has said, “I’m really interested in what animals look like, but I’m much more fascinated by the way that appearance functions as those animals interact with one another and with their environment. Ecology is the motivating force not only of evolution, but of my artwork.”**

In addition to imagination, there is something else about his paintings that elevates Brest van Kempen above the rest. What could that be? I think it is the pure and simple joy that comes from relishing the work that he does as an imaginative wildlife artist. In each of his paintings, there is an undercurrent of joy. Often this can be seen in the subjects he selects. Brest van Kempen’s subjects do not often include cliché glamour species like those painted ad infinitum by other artists; rather, they comprise underrepresented species which give real meaning to the term, biodiversity.

Another manifestation of joy in the paintings of Brest van Kempen is the relationship in which he places the viewer to his subjects, or, in other words, perspective. I can think of no wildlife artist who has produced a body of work that consistently affords viewers with richer, often close-up, perspectives than Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen.

Brest van Kempen’s perspective, combined with his virtuosic technique and tantalizing imagination, gives his paintings a richness and depth that is rare in the world of wildlife art. For aestheticians or art historians like me, these characteristics are critical for assessing art. Depth, after all, is what keeps viewers coming back and interested in more. Richness and depth are the secrets to great art. They are what make art endure.

David J. Wagner, Ph.D.
Curator/Tour Director

From the Executive Director

Dutch artists of the 17th century were famous for their meticulously rendered still-life paintings featuring floral arrangements being eaten by insects, or foodstuffs, including dead fowl and hares, which were to be devoured by man. These beautiful paintings were meant to be symbols of the transience of life and of all living things.

Carel Pieter Brest van Kempen is an American artist of Dutch extraction, and it is instructive to compare his paintings with those of his Dutch forebears. In Brest van Kempen’s paintings nature is rendered with the same respect for the natural world and attention to detail, but there the comparison ends. These are not still-lifes (natura morte, or dead nature). Birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, and amphibians are all very alive and, by depicting them in their natural habitats, Brest van Kempen gives the viewer a powerful impression of the interdependence of all life. His paintings reflect our 21st century concern with ecology and with preserving the biodiversity of the planet for future generations.

The Wildling Art Museum would like to thank Brest van Kempen for the loan of these works, Dr. David J. Wagner, the curator and tour manager, for making the exhibition available to us, my assistant Holly Cline for designing and overseeing the production of this handsome monograph, and Bob Dycus and Jessica Reichman for their professional help in installing the exhibition.

Elizabeth P. Knowles


Unless otherwise indicated,
all works have been loaned by the artist.

Agarrando La Mañana--
Black Vultures (1993)
Ink wash on bristol board 14”x20”

Bat Falcon & Golden Fee-Tailed Bat (1988)
Watercolor on bristol board 24”x18”

Black Skimmer (2002)
Acrylic on illustration board 24”x30”

A Brick House--
English Sparrow & Paper Wasp (1992)
Acrylic on illustration board 18”x16”

Coast Horned Lizard (1998)
Acrylic on illustration board 20”x30”

Crash-Barrier Waltzer--
Black-Billed Magpie (2005)
Acrylic on illustration board 30”x22”

Gostoso! -- Maned Wolves & Three-Banded Armadillo (1997)
Acrylic on illustration board 30”x20”

Great Tinamou (1994)
Acrylic on illustration board 15”x10”

Harris’ Hawk & Chuckwalla (2005)
Acrylic on illustration board 30”x20”

Hungry Eyes-
Great Horned Owlets (2005)
Acrylic on illustration board 30”x22”

Jaguar & Collared Peccaries (1994)
Oil on masonite 32”x42”

Juvenile Red-Tailed Hawk & Western Rattlesnake (1988)
Acrylic on illustration board 18”x24”

Mallards (1988)
Watercolor on bristol board 13”x18”

Mountain Witch (1994)
Watercolor on bristol board 12”x10”
Private collection.

Northern Cacomistle (1994)
Acrylic on illustration board 18”x24”
Private collection.

Plush-Crested Jays Mob
An Ornate Hawk Eagle (2003)
Acrylic on illustration board 30”x10”

Prairie Sentinel--American Bison & Prairie Rattlesnake (2002)
Acrylic on illustration board 15”x40”

Strange Fruit--
Ivory-Billed Woodpecker (2002)
Acrylic on illustration board 30”x20”

Three More Worlds--
Rainbow Trout (1998)
Acrylic on illustration board 30”x20”

Yellow-Crowned Night Heron Portrait (2004)|
Acrylic on illustration board 24”x18”