c.1615 - 1635
Landscape with an Allegory of the Four Elements

Oil on oak panel
Image size: 24 1/2 x 41 1/4 inches (62.25 x 104.75 cm)
19th Century handmade frame


Collection of the Walker-Monroe family, Drumfolk Castle, Scotland.
Lot 78, ‘Important Old Master Paintings’, Sotheby’s London, 5th July 1967.
Collection of Fürstin Marie zu Wied, Princess of the Netherlands.


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In this painting four seated women representing Water, Air, Earth, and Fire are surrounded by a lush landscape.

Brueghel the Younger often depicted these allegories in a landscape, allowing him to display his knowledge of the visible world as well as his extraordinary technical mastery in the depiction of animals, flowers, and natural elements. Indeed, here the allegorical figures of Earth, Fire, Air and Water are surrounded by different types of sea creatures, fruits and flowers, with this composition emphasising the group’s central position. Flemish artists of the time repeatedly painted representations of the four elements, suggesting that it was a popular subject with buyers.

The theory that the material world was composed of four elements was evolved by Empedocles (c.450 BC) and promulgated by Aristotle, from whom all mediaeval science derived. The human significance of these was enhanced by the idea that each governed one of the four humours, of which the body and temperament were supposed to be similarly formed.

The relationship of the four elements to the universe was first set forth in Aristotle ́s (384-322 BCE) ‘Physics’, in which earth, water, fire, and air are presented as the four substances that constitute the entire world. The subject ́s representation alluded to nature and its sensual beauty, which is emphasised here by the femininity of the figures.

Toward the end of his life, Jan Brueghel the Younger dedicated a portion of his production to allegorical series of the senses, abundance, and the four elements, which were very popular themes in Flemish painting of the seventeenth century. In creating these he often collaborated with other artists, as was common practice in seventeenth-century Antwerp. Such collaborations between artists were common in Antwerp during the 1600s, as artists often specialised in either landscape or figure painting.



Jan Brueghel the Younger

Jan Brueghel the Younger devoted his career to carrying on his father’s painting style. Demand was high for big, decorative landscapes and works by fijnschilders, painters of meticulous detail, who worked in the vein of Jan Brueghel the Elder. To satisfy the market, Jan the Younger sometimes copied his father’s works and sold them under his father’s signature. In consequence, it is often difficult to distinguish their styles, though Jan the Younger’s few dated pictures show lighter colours and less precise drawing.

After training under his father, Jan the Younger went to Italy in 1624, traveling with his childhood friend Anthony van Dyck. When Jan the Elder died suddenly in a cholera epidemic, Jan the Younger took over his father’s busy Antwerp studio. He became dean of Antwerp’s guild in 1630. His clients included the Austrian and French courts, and he may have visited France in the 1650s. While Jan the Younger painted many subjects, he is best known for landscapes whose subjects ranged from villages, to mythological scenes, to allegories and, to a new category, animals in landscapes. His allegories depicted the senses, the elements, the seasons, and abundance. Like his father, he created landscape backgrounds for many painters, including Peter Paul Rubens and Hendrick van Balen.