As every schoolchild knows, in the ancient world there were four elements: earth, air, water and fire. It isn’t of course anywhere near as simple as that, with proto-sciences claiming four, five, or even more. But there is a sort of cross-cultural popularity for those four elements described by Aristotle and many others.
For the working painter, this is an opportunity which is too good to miss. Get your patron or customer to like just one, and they’re committed to the set of four. In the century from 1560-1660, it seems to have been a popular ploy, more widely used than the five senses, and possibly even the four seasons. This weekend I’m going to look at some of the best allegorical and direct paintings of earth, air, water and fire, starting with that unique artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
Instead of building his portraits in the normal way, using paint to imitate his perception of the form of the subject, Arcimboldo’s portraits were assembled from his painted representations of other objects and creatures – books, plants, flowers, birds, even the barrels of cannon. No one seems to be sure exactly when this started to happen, nor why he did it, to begin with, but he probably painted his first when working as the court portraitist to the Habsburg court in Vienna, in the 1560s. It might have begun as a joke or whimsy, and some considered that all these paintings were only ever whimsies or capriccios. But he discovered that they were more popular and successful than his normal portraits and other works.
His first significant group of these paintings showed the four classical elements, including Fire (1566). At this stage, these paintings were made from carefully chosen and positioned objects which are associated with the theme of the work. So this uses a bundle of matchsticks, steels used to make sparks, burning logs, and firearms.
His series The Four Elements used creatures predominantly as its building blocks: Air consisted of birds, Earth of land animals, Fire of inanimate objects, and Water of fish and aquatic creatures.
Shortly afterwards, and probably independently, Joachim Beuckelaer painted a fascinating set in which he showed a cameo of an appropriate story from the Bible.
In The Four Elements: Earth. A Fruit and Vegetable Market with the Flight into Egypt in the Background (1569), the Biblical story is shown at the upper left, and the painting is dominated by the fruits of the earth.
You have to look hard into the distance of The Four Elements: Air. A Poultry Market with the Prodigal Son in the Background (1570) to see the suggestion of its narrative.
In The Four Elements: Water. A Fish Market with the Miraculous Draught of Fishes in the Background (1569) the eye is better-guided by the arch to read its story.
The Four Elements: Fire. A Kitchen Scene with Christ in the House of Martha and Mary in the Background (1570) has perhaps the best balance between the foreground allegory and the background narrative, and the exaggerated perspective which you might have expected from an image in a camera obscura.
Leandro Bassano’s Allegory of the Element Earth from about 1580 is a copy of a work originally painted by his better-known father Jacopo. With the foreground full of the fruits of the earth, in the distant sky is Cybele in her chariot drawn by lions. Others in this series contain similar heavenly cameos of classical gods of relevance to the element shown.
With time, paintings of the four elements became more intricate, with the variety of references and objects typical of series of the five senses. Pauwels Franck, also known by his Italianised name of Paolo Fiammingo, painted such a series between 1580-96.
Allegory of Earth shows a classical triumph for a goddess who could also be Cybele.
Juno, with her chariot drawn by peacocks, takes centre stage in his Allegory of Air, with its rich collection of creatures of the air, including some vividly imagined.
His Allegory of Water celebrates the fruits of the sea and those who catch them for our tables.
Vulcan himself presides over this Allegory of Fire, with fireworks, furnaces and cannons.
On Monday, I’ll look at paintings from the seventeenth century, including what must have been a lucrative seam in the family business of the Brueghels. (Tomorrow being an In Memoriam article to mark the centenary of George Dunlop Leslie.)