Jan van Kessel II counted his uncle Jan Brueghel the Younger among his teachers. He joined the Antwerp painters' guild in 1645 and specialized in small-scale pictures of subjects gleaned from the natural world such as floral still lifes and allegorical series showing animal kingdoms, the four elements, the senses, or the parts of the world. Obsessed with picturesque detail, van Kessel worked from nature and used illustrated scientific texts as sources for filling his pictures with objects represented with almost scientific accuracy.
Scholars trace many of van Kessel's subjects back to a prototype by some eminent predecessor. Joris Hoefnagel's works inspired van Kessel's sensitive and delicate drawings of insects and flowers, executed mainly in watercolor on parchment. Van Kessel showed a preference for beetles, caterpillars, and butterflies and occasionally arranged caterpillars to spell out his name. The works of his grandfather Jan Brueghel the Elder, Roelandt Savery, and Frans Synders influenced his paintings of animals. His paintings frequently exhibited a fascination with the bizarre, the exotic, and even the grotesque, as in his Cannibalistic Indians. In his later years, he had to mortgage his possessions to pay off his debts.