The Four Elements: Air
Jan Brueghel the younger (Antwerp 1601 - Antwerp 1678) and Hendrik van Balen the elder (Antwerp 1575 - Antwerp 1632)
Art / Oil paintings
circa 1625 - 1632
Oil on copper
476 x 825 mm (18 3/4 x 32 1/2 in)
Place of origin
AntwerpOrder this image
Kingston Lacy Estate, Dorset (Accredited Museum)
On show at
This is a unique version of the many repeated sets of allegorical depictions of the Four Elements, as pictorial encyclopedia of the natural world, from the Jan 'Velvet' Brueghel the Elder (1568- 1625) Antwerp studio from the early 17th century. According to Aristotelian science, the Four Elements were the basic components of the material world, each of which corresponded to one of the 'humours' of the human body and temperament. Air is personified here by a figure of Astronomy with her orrery and flocks of exotic birds. The sets were popular in Italy, particularly with the Brueghel’s patron Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564—1631), Archbishop of Milan and founder of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan and his assistant, Ercole Bianchi, who enjoyed a set with naked figures. And in Spain, Philip IV distributed sets among the ladies of the court. They evolved from an individual piece showing all the Elements together in a unified scene, each bearing appropriate attributes and including a profusion of botanical and zoological detail, to four separate works. It was painted during the elder’s life time by his son and studio assistant – probably before 1622 when he went to Italy. This set was not recorded at Kingston Lacy until 1905, probably bought by the widow of Walter Ralph Bankes, née Henrietta Fraser.
Oil painting on copper, The Four Elements: Air by Jan Brueghel the younger (Antwerp 1601 - Antwerp 1678) and Hendrik van Balen the elder (Antwerp 1575 - Antwerp 1632), circa 1625/32. Air is personified by a figure of Astronomy.
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. Hence Sir Toby Belch's question in Twelfth Night (Act II Scene 3): "Does not our lives consist of the four elements?". This may help to account for the extraordinary variety of engravings of the Four Elements published in the Netherlands, which must in turn have been the immediate inspiration for the idea, though not the form, of Jan 'Velvet' Brueghel the Elder's variety of depictions of them. As Brueghel treated them, however, they developed a new dimension, as - like his pictures of The Creation, the Garden of Eden, or the Animals getting ready to enter the Ark — pictorial encyclopedias of the natural world. It is thus no coincidence that some of his earliest treatments of the subject should have been for his lifelong patron, Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564 - 1631), Archbishop of Milan, for whom such pictures were a speculum, or a mirror held up to nature. They were thus well suited to the purposes of the Cardinal's foundation of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, as a library and picture gallery giving everyone - but artists particularly in the case of the latter - access to the sources of knowledge and to some of the finest performances of art - which he saw primarily in mimetic terms . We can gain some idea of the evolution of Jan Brueghel the Elder's sets of the Four Elements from his remarkable correspondence with Cardinal Federico Borromeo, and with the latter's right-hand man - and himself also a collector and amateur painter - Ercole Bianchi. This is one of the most extensive between an artist and his patrons, and - in its latter stages, when he is concerned about his son, the present artist's, increasingly capricious progress through Italy, Sicily, and Malta - one of the most personal, to have come down to us from before the 18th century . The surviving correspondence only begins in 1596, and as there are gaps in it (notably between 1596 and 1605), it seems likely that the first Element, Earth, which was seized from the Ambrosiana by the French in 1796 and is now in the Louvre , was painted before 1605. What is more, it was probably not originally intended as an Element, but - as it is still more commonly called - as a representation of Paradise, or The Garden of Eden, and only subsequently pressed into service as Earth. Alternatively, this was the painting of 'Animali', that Brueghel expressed pleasure at word of the Cardinal's satisfaction with in a letter of 1 February 1608, but which was sent back to him for some alteration - perhaps the addition of the little figures of God, Adam and Eve necessary to identify it as Paradise - in 1609 . The first that we hear of the Elements is in connection with a painting of Ceres, or Abundance, that Brueghel announced to Cardinal Federico in a letter from Antwerp dated 8 July 1605 . In this, the Elements are both personified by four putti, each bearing appropriate attributes, and represented by a profusion of still-life and zoological detail. It may, indeed, have been this picture that, after a little lapse of time, suggested either to artist or to client that he should take and multiply these details, to paint single depictions of individual Elements. It is certainly the case that the one of which we first hear, the Element of Fire, is the one that is least adequately represented in the picture of Ceres with all four Elements. That is because - in contradistinction to the other three Elements, which could all be represented by naturalia - Fire is most appropriately represented, as here, by artificialia, or the works of Man (and, in view of the fact that the classification into naturalia and artificialia was the basic distinction between items in cabinets of curiosity, Cardinal Federico may very well have wished to set one off against the other, if he was already thinking of attaching his collection of pictures to his newly-founded Library). The picture is mentioned as already in progress in a letter of Brueghel's to Bianchi of 26 September 1608, and it is still in the Ambrosiana . In contrast to the present treatment of the subject, but as in Cardinal Federico's Earth/Paradise, the human figures are relegated to the background; and though the picture is described as that of Vulcan's forge in the 1618 list, one is unaware of the presence of the god. Cardinal Federico may at this stage only have wished to have an example of Brueghel's virtuosity in painting metallic and inanimate things as well as furry, feathered, and leafy natural ones - he was certainly in no hurry to order a complete set of the Elements. That step was instead taken by his adviser, Ercole Bianchi, with whom Brueghel proceeded to have a protracted correspondence between February 1608 and April 1611, successively over his promises to paint, his delays in painting, and his final dispatch of, the four pictures . It is they that were probably the originals of the profusion of sets or single pictures of the Elements that emanated from Jan Brueghel the Elder himself, from his son - as in the set shown here - and from a whole host of studio assistants and outside copyists. For this to have been possible, the artist must have retained a master set in Antwerp - and it was perhaps the need to paint this set, in addition to the one commissioned by Bianchi, at a time when he was much employed by the Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella, that helps to account for his delays in completing Bianchi's commission. The key distinction between these Elements - and copies and derivatives of them, such as those shown here - and the first two painted for Cardinal Federico, was that Bianchi's were "fatte con figurini nudi" (done with naked figures) . This removed them from the realm of Borromeo's encylopaedic aspirations, but evidently struck a more popular chord; since there are virtually no repetitions of the Ambrosiana Elements, whereas those of Bianchi's are legion. What has happened to Bianchi's originals, on the other hand, is far from clear. Crivelli thought (it is not quite clear on what evidence) that they had passed into the hands of the duca di Melzi, in his palazzo in the via Cavalchina in Milan, and that thence two had been sent to the Villa Melzi, and two had vanished without trace . A better-founded account was given to Gabburri by the great connoisseur and colloector of old master drawings, Padre (Sebastiano) Resta, in 1704. He said that all eleven of Bianchi's Brueghels had been acquired by the Governor of Milan, the marchese di Cavacena, who sent them to his master, Philip IV of Spain, who distributed them all as presents to ladies of the court, from one of whom five or six were acquired by the Patriarch Girolamo Colonna (1604 -66), who had shown them to him in Rome. After that the trail runs into the sand . Whatever the truth of the matter, the prior existence of the Bianchi set in Milan whose gestation gave Brueghel so much trouble, tends to support Ertz's contention that the well-known set in the Doria-Pamphilj Gallery, which is already recorded in the Palazzo Pamphilij in the Piazza Navona in Rome in 1666, is composed of - at best - autograph replicas . The Cardinal's set was not completed until much later. He hesitated over commissioning a Water or an Air in 1613, finally deciding in 1614, on the former, which was finished and dispatched via Bianchi the same year . The picture is still in the Ambrosiana, and reveals that the collector's world of the Earth and Fire, as painted for him, had become populated with the putti and mythological figures that characterised Bianchi's Elements; although — perhaps in deference to the kind of strictures upon the seductive dangers of nudes in painting that Borromeo was subsequently to express in his De Pictura Sacra (1624) - a grizzled old river-god takes the place of the nubile young water-nymph found - presumably - in the Bianchi Water, and in derivatives of that, such as the one shown here. In the last of his Elements for Federico Borromeo, Air, which was not painted until 1621, but which was also seized by the French and has remained in the Louvre, Brueghel went over entirely to his mythological way of depicting them, and in this particular case, did not shrink from painting a nude for the Cardinal . Precisely who painted each of the numerous sets of replicas of the Bianchi set of Elements and when requires much more rigorous and scientific analysis than it has yet received; everything said here is subject to that caution . In the case of those, such as the present set, that, in terms of quality and closeness of handling to Jan Brueghel the Elder's other works, can reasonably be attributed to Jan Breughel the Younger, the key question is whether or not they were painted before or after the artist's journey to Italy from 1622 to 1625. It is less a question of his style having been affected by his sojourn there - at one paint his father wrote in exasperation to Bianchi: "I sent him to better to his art, not to become a tourist"! - than of whether or not they were painted in Jan Brueghel the Elder's studio, within his lifetime. We are fortunate that, amongst the unusually detailed documentation that we possess for the Brueghels, is a partial transcription of the detailed account-book that Jan Breughel the Younger kept from the moment of his abrupt return for home on hearing in Palermo of his father's death in 1625 . Between that date and 1632, the year of Hendrik van Balen's death, only two sets of copies of the Elements are recorded, on one of which van Balen worked. Admittedly the portions of the account-book relating to 1629 and to 1632 itself are missing, but enough survives to make it clear that this theme was no longer a major item of collaboration between them. In all the finest sets of Elements, however - including the present one - the figures are by van Balen, making it fairly clear that - as their fidelity in handling to Jan Brueghel the Elder's works would suggest - such sets were executed in the latter's lifetime, and under his supervision, by his son. A fortiori in the case of the present set, the figures in which are unique, not repeated in any of the numerous other repetitions of the Elements. In the case of Fire, no other version has this group of Venus arming Aeneas instead of Venus and Vulcan (Milan was one of the chief centres for the production of fine suits of armour, which may be why Borromeo and Bianchi were particularly gratified to have it given most prominence as a product of the furnace). In the case of Water and Air, no other versions have nymphs or putti in quite these poses or places. In the case of Earth the same is true, but also - and this is perhaps the most telling detail, since it suggests an alteration made at the instigation of - and possibly even by - Jan Brueghel the Elder himself, rather than by Hendrik van Balen - no other version has the superb pair of leopards stretching and nuzzling. These leopards were one of the happiest inventions in Brueghel the Elder's paintings; so much so that they were taken up - or, more probably, their pose was even originally studied or invented - by his much more celebrated friend and occasional collaborator, Rubens, in his Nymph and Satyr with two leopards (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) . This was offered to Sir Dudley Carleton in 1618 - but may well have been painted some time before - with the statement that the leopards were: "done from the life .... An original by my hand, all save the beautiful landscape, done by a good man for that speciality", which certainly implies that the leopards were Rubens's own invention. Yet the earliest version of Brueghel's own Animals preparing to enter the Ark (Getty Museum, Malibu), which includes not only them, but a pair of lions that feature in Rubens's Daniel in the lion's den, which was offered to Carleton on the same occasion, is signed and dated as early as 1613 . Whether the original invention or observation of this pair of leopards was Brueghel's or Rubens's, its unique inclusion in the present painting is a further indication that the whole set was executed under Brueghel the Elder's close supervision. One final word about the history of these pictures at Kingston Lacy. They are not part of the historic collection of the house, not being recorded there before 1905. We know nothing of their provenance. Since virtually no other Old Master pictures were added to the collection after the death of William Bankes in 1855, the save the Zurbaran Studio version of St. Elizabeth of Portugal that Walter Ralph Bankes bought as an inadequate substitute for the sale to Otto Gutekunst of Colnaghi's in 1896 of the Velazquez Philip IV that the latter and Berenson had earmarked for Isabella Stewart Gardner, they must have been bought by his widow, née Henrietta Fraser, whose only other pictorial patronage appears to have been the commissioning of very Edwardian watercolours from Mary Gow, Mrs Sydney Prior Hall. Notes: (i) See esp. Federico Borromeo, De Pictura Sacra libri duo, Milan, 1624 (ed. C. Castiglione, Sora, 1932); do., Musaeum, Milan, 1625 (It. trans. by L. Grasselli, ed. L. Beltrami, Milan, 1909); Stefania Bedoni, Jan Brueghel in Italia e il Collezionismo del Seicento, Florence & Milan, 1983. (ii) Published, with a running commentary and some facsimiles, by Giovanni Crivelli, Giovanni Brueghel, pittor fiammingo, o sue lettere e quadretti esistenti presso l'Ambrosiana, Milan, 1868. (iii) Inv.1092. Cf. Klaus Ertz, Jan Brueghel der Ältere, Cologne, 1979, cat.no.342, pp.364, 374-76, 614-15, & fig. 315. (iv) Crivelli, op.cit., pp.92 & 131; Bedoni, op.cit., pp.114, 120, 156 n.128, & pl. 51. Bedoni can hardly be right in saying that Brueghel turned into an allegory of Earth then, since it is the 'animali' that already define it as such. (v) Crivelli, op.cit., pp.50-51. The picture is one of those listed as the second of two sets of 'Sei pezzi di Paesini dipinti sopra il rame' in the lists annexed to the original act of foundation of the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana of 1618, of which it still forms a part: cf. Antonia Falchetti, La Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan, 1969, pp.298, 137 & fig.p.138. Ertz, op.cit., 1979, p.363 & fig.434, quite arbitrarily dismisses this as a later substitution; but, since he neither argues his case nor offers any explanation of how or why such a thing could have taken place, his opinion can be discounted. It is, however, probable that - though neither the letter nor the list mention it - the figures are by Hendrik van Balen. (v) Crivelli, op.cit., pp.110-12; Falchetti, cat.cit., pp.298 & 131 [omitting to mention that it is signed and dated 1608]; Ertz, op.cit., 1979, cat.no.190, pp.364, 374-76, 589, & fig. 445. (vi) Crivelli, op.cit., pp.98-184; Ertz, op.cit., 1979, esp.pp. 363-65 completely fails to grasp this crucial distinction between the set of Elements that Brueghel executed in one fell swoop for Bianchi (whom he fails to mention at all in this context), and those painted singly, over two decades, for Cardinal Federico, so that his attempted classification of them is riddled with flaws. (vii) Crivelli, op.cit., letter of 4 July 1609, pp.139-40. In this, Brueghel says that he has already begun Air and Fire, but that he cannot use two paisetto [sic - i.e. really landscapes] that Bianchi has sent him for Earth and Water because of this fact. Bianchi must have hoped that Brueghel was simply going to enrich the landscapes - which Bianchi - or who? - had painted - with still-life details and creatures, but they clearly did not lend themselves to the inclusion of mythological or allegorical figures as well. (viii) Crivelli, op.cit., pp.151-52; The Melzi set, however, had been acquired by Count Giacomo Melzi d'Eril (1721—1802) from Count Firmian in 1782, and was ascribed to Jan Breughel the Younger in the first printed catalogue of the Melzi d'Eril collection around 1802. When catalogued a century later at the Villa di Bellagio, it was as by Jan Brueghel the Elder, but it was admitted that the Air and Water seemed to be by an inferior hand (cf. Giulio Carotti, Capi d'Arti appartenenti a S.E. la Duchessa Joséphine Melzi d'Eril-Barbò, Bergamo, 1901, p.171, nos. 55-58, and p.111). (ix) Bedoni, op.cit., 1983, pp.146-47. (x) Eduard A. Safarik & Giorgio Torselli, La Galleria Doria Pamphilj a Roma, Rome, 1982, nos. 21-24 (as by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Hendrick van Balen; inv.nos. 322, 328, 332 & 348; Stefania Bedoni, op.cit., pp.68-73 & pls. 26 & 27; Ertz, op.cit., 1979, cats. 248-51, pp.370-71 & pls.439-42. It is just possible that the signed and dated (1611) version of Earth on its own, that first came to light in an auction at Cologne in 1952 (exh. Jan Brueghel the Elder, Brod Gallery, London, 1979, no.28), is a solitary survivor of the original series for Bianchi. (xi) Crivelli, letters of 19 April 1613, 24 December 1614, and 13 March 1616, pp.203-4, 220-21, & 223: the reference to "il quadro de pesci" in this last must be to the Element of Water, since there is no record of Brueghel ever having done as simple still-life of fish for Borromeo, Bianchi, or anyone else. Crivelli was still able to read the date on Water as 1614. (xii) Crivelli, op.cit., pp.238 (Bedoni, op.cit., pp.133 & 135-36, rightly corrects the date of this letter from 1616 to 1621, which is that found on the picture) & 271-74. (xiii) Klaus Ertz, Jan Breughel the Younger, Freren, 1984, nos. 193-96, 190-201, & 197, pp.68-69, 357-65, with figs. & col.pls.39-44, gives two sets of Elements (in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons - originally in Archduke Leopold Wilhelm's collection - and in a private collection), and a single Fire (private collection) that he singles out as by Jan Breughel the Younger, but without any argument for his case. A very full listing of other versions is to be found in exh.cat. Le siècle de Rubens dans les collections publiques françaises, Grand Palais, Paris, 1977-78, under nos. 14 (Fire) & 15 (Water). A poor set of copies of all four Elements is at Saltram; an Air, probably by Jan II Breughel and Hendrik van Balen, is at Stourhead. (xiv) Letter of 17 May 1624: "io li ho mandato per imparare et advanzare nell'arte, ma non per viaggar per li paesi" (Crivelli, op.cit., p.328). (xv) Maurice Vaes, 'Le journal de Jean Brueghel II', Bulletin de l'Institut historique belge de Rome, 6 (1926), pp.163-222; reprinted from this in a German translation in Ertz, 1984. (xvi) Called Pan and Syrinx or The Age of Gold and ascribed to Martin de Vos when in the Orleans Collection. Cf. Julius Held, 'P.P. Rubens: The Leopards: "Originale de mia Mano", Lunenburg, Vt., 1970; reprinted as a Supplement to The Burlington Magazine, vol. CXV, May 1973; Michael Jaffé, Rubens:catalogo completo, Milan, 1989, no.289 bis. (xvii) Exh. Jan Brueghel the Elder, Brod Gallery, London, 1979, no.29, pp.96—97 & colour detail on dust-jacket. (adapted from author's version/pre-publication, Alastair Laing, In Trust for the Nation, exh. cat., 1995)
Acquired after 1905, probably by Henrietta Jenny Fraser, Mrs. Walter Ralph Bankes (1871 -1953); bequeathed by her son, Ralph Bankes (1902 – 1981), 1981.
Kingston Lacy, The Bankes Collection (National Trust)
Marks and inscriptions
AIR (painted in black on fixed gilt label, bottom right-hand side)
Makers and roles
Jan Brueghel the younger (Antwerp 1601 - Antwerp 1678) and Hendrik van Balen the elder (Antwerp 1575 - Antwerp 1632) , artist
In Trust for the Nation, National Gallery, London, 1995 - 1996, no.60a
In Trust for the Nation: Paintings from National Trust Houses (exh cat) (Alastair Laing) The National Gallery, London, 22 November 1995 - 10 March 1996, no.60