He was the son of Hieronymus van Kessel the elder and Paschasia Brueghel, and was as a result a member of the famous Flemish dynasty of painters of the Brueghel family. He was a pupil of his older brother Hieronymous van Kessel the younger, and his uncle Jan Brueghel the Younger. He became a member of the Antwerp Guild of Saint Luke in 1644 as "blomschilder" (flower painter). The 17th-century Flemish biographer Cornelis de Bie included van Kessel in his book on Flemish painters called Het Gulden Kabinet. Arnold Houbraken praised him for the neatness of his flower paintings for which he was known during his lifetime.
Jan van Kessel 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.
He painted many animals (especially insects) and flowers, as well as some mythological and biblical scenes. His choice of subject leaned towards those which included animals and plants.