The Four Elements: Fire by Joachim Beuckelaer

The Four Elements: Fire by Joachim Beuckelaer

My Daily Art Display offering for today is the fourth and final painting in Joachim Beuckelaer’s set of pictures, which he painted in 1569-1570 entitled The Four Elements.   Today’s painting is entitled The Four Elements: Fire.  The Ancient Greeks believed that the cosmos was made up of four elements, namely, Earth, Air, Fire and Water and thus the reasoning behind the artist’s four-picture set.   The painting today moves away from the market stalls where we saw women buying vegetables, poultry and fish and that were featured in the previous three works of art.  Instead, today we move to a kitchen scene in which the produce that has been bought at the various market stalls will be cooked.  To do the cooking one needs fire, hence the subtitle to this painting.

This painting, like the other three was completed in Beuckelaer’s studio for an Italian patron.  This genre of painting was very popular with the local populace.  The abundance of food in the paintings did not mirror life in the Netherlands at the time as the locals lived under the oppressive regime of the Duke of Alba, a Spanish general who was the governor of the Spanish Netherlands and who was renowned for his cruelty and atrocities against the Flemish and Dutch people.

We look at the kitchen scene from a slightly elevated position.  This is a busy kitchen.   Probably more than just busy, I think it borders on disarray, almost chaos by the look at the tumbling kitchen bowls in the centre of the composition.   Whilst the women are hard at work, the only male in the picture, who is probably a servant or steward drinks to excess and if not careful will end up in the fire!  The two women with him seem less than amused at his antics.  Beuckelaer’s forte is his still life paintings.  Look carefully at the produce.  See how he has exquisitely painted the various dead poultry and the sides of ham.  No detail has been spared.  Look at the way he has painted the earthenware kitchen utensils, some glistening in the sunlight which streams through the kitchen window.

On the floor we can see mussel shells.  These sometimes have erotic connotations when seen in paintings.  However there may be another meaning to the scattering of these shells in the kitchen scene.  The Dutch Golden Age painter of allegories, Adriaen van de Venne said that because mussels stay in their shells they “can be compared to the blessed women-folk who speak modestly and virtuously and always look after their household.   So maybe Beuckelaer’s inclusion of the shells on the floor was a tribute to the hard working women in his kitchen scene.

Jesus at the house of Martha and Mary

Finally if you look through the door on the left-hand side, you can see another kitchen scene.  This is the Biblical story which Beuckelaer has introduced into each of his four paintings.  This scene is set in the kitchen of the house of Mary and her sister Martha in which we see Jesus who has come to visit them.  The story according to the Bible is that Martha complains to Jesus that although she is working hard in the kitchen, all Mary does is stand around listening to his words.  Jesus reproached her saying that Mary’s contemplation was in fact a more important form of her work.

This biblical story was often told to servants in the sixteenth century with sole purpose of stopping them complaining about the amount of servile work they had to carry out.  I am not sure that this “parable” would find much favour in present day workers!

So now you have seen all four paintings in The Four Elements set.  Some may think the colours rather garish and the scenes at the produce stalls and in the kitchen somewhat chaotic but this painting genre was very popular at the time of Beuckelaer and to be honest I find them both fascinating and of great quality.

The Four Elements: Air by Joachim Beuckelaer

The Four Elements: Air by Joachim Beucklaer (1570)

Over the last few days I have featured the set of four paintings by the Flemish artist Joachim Beuckelaer entitled The Four Elements.  On the first day the painting was subtitled “Water” and yesterday the subtitle of the painting was “Earth”.  Today I am featuring the third painting of the set with the subtitle “Air”  which was painted in 1570.

In the “Water” painting we were shown a fish market and the connection with the Element of Water was that of the habitat of the food.  The same went for the “Earth” painting when we saw the fruits and vegetables of the earth.  Today with the subject “Air” we are treated to the sight of the “food” which occupies the air above ground, namely birds, fowl and rabbits.  We are also treated to the sight of products which come indirectly from the land such as eggs and cheeses.  We are at a poultry market and there is an abundance of food on offer.  During Beuckelaer’s lifetime he painted numerous “market scenes” and at that time the art market was flooded with such a genre.  Unfortunately for the artist once the art market became saturated with such paintings their value declined and the real value of Beuckelaer’s work did not become apparent until after his death.

In the painting we see the rosy-cheeked stall holder sitting alongside the produce.  It is a well-stocked market stall with a variety of dead fowl and small birds.  We can also see inside a green wicker cage some live hens.  The man at the stall, wearing the leather jerkin, has hold of a hen by its feet having just taken it out of the cage to show it to a would-be purchaser.  To the left we observe a well dressed woman.  She too is holding a hen in her right hand whilst her left hand rests atop a copper flagon which may contain milk or wine.

In the central background we see a road leading to the sea with a small cargo boat just setting sail with the crewman starting to hoist the sails.  On the quay we can just make out some barrels which have been off-loaded from the craft.

The Prodigal Son

So where is the Biblical story, which the artist is known to have incorporated into each of the four paintings?   In this painting it is not as obvious.  If however you concentrate on this road leading to the sea you will spot on the left hand side just behind some baskets of produce a man and a woman.  She has her hand on his arm greeting him.  He is leaning backwards against her, almost slumped.  This was the Biblical addition of the painting by Beuckelaer, symbolising the Prodigal Son returning home.  To me it seems as if he is inebriated and has just about made back home!

Once again we have before us a very colourful painting, full of activity.  I get great pleasure looking around the painting at the various charactyers and their expressions and try and work out what is happening and what the artist had in his mind as he put paintbrush to canvas.

To get a much better view of this painting I suggest you try the National Gallery Website (below) and then you can zoom in on aspects of the painting.  The website is:

The Four Elements: Earth by Joachim Beuckelaer

The Four Elements Earth by Joachim Beuckelaer (1569)

Today I am featuring the second of a set of four paintings entitled The Four Elements.  This painting completed by Joachim Buckelaer in 1569 is entitled The Four Elements: Earth.  In this painting we are again standing in front of a market stall.   This time the scene is set in the countryside, outside a large thatched-roof farmhouse, and before us we can see laid out an abundance of fruit and vegetables, symbolising “Earth” as this is where the produce has come from.  It was common practice in Dutch and Flemish paintings of the 16th and 17th century to symbolise the Elements by reference to the natural world.  Although I have not attempted to count them, I believe there are sixteen different varieties of fruit and vegetables on display in the painting.  The painter has used some “artistic licence” when he painted the various fruit and vegetables as not all would be available at the same time of year and of course there was no such thing as refrigeration in the seventeenth century.  It is truly a depiction of a “land of plenty” where there is no place for hunger.

The spectrum of colours used by the artist has enhanced the painting.  The fruit is painted with such realism.  They look so succulent and they lay there tilted slightly towards us to give us an even better view of everything and tempt us to try some of the produce.   You almost want to move forward and pick a grape or sample a mulberry.  All seems so mouth-watering which is a testament to the artist’s great ability to paint still-life subjects.

It is difficult to decide who are the buyers and who are the sellers in the painting.  Before us, we have the two young females in their colourful attire.  The lady in the red jacket with her sleeves rolled up has rosy cheeks which has probably come from working outside so much.  The lady with the lace cap and yellow sleeved dress would seem to be dressed slightly better than the others and may hold the position of head cook in a wealthy household who has come down to choose the best produce for the ingredients needed for the meals she is about to prepare.  I love the way the way Beuckelaer depicts the vegetables tumbling from her hands.  It makes you almost want to rush forward and catch the errant cabbage before it hits the ground.  To the right of the main figures we see a young man and woman by a well and one wonders if they are the stall holders who use the water from the well to wash the fruit before putting it on display.  The man stares out at us with his elbow on the edge of the well as he takes a rest.

Mary and Joseph crossing the bridge.

Once again the artist has included a scene from the bible into the painting.  Look to the left background and you can see in the distance, a small arched bridge, on which Mary and Joseph are crossing.  Joseph leads the way on foot guiding the mule on which sits Mary with the infant Jesus and is a portrayal of the Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt to avoid the clutches of King Herod.

I love this painting and I love how Beuckelaer has painted the produce.  It is so life-like.  The colours he has used enhance the painting and make it look so real.

The Four Elements: Water by Joachim Beuckelaer

The Four Elements: Water by Joachim Beuckelaer (1569)

Over the next four days I want to show you a set of four paintings by the Flemish painter Joachim Beuckelaer.  His favoured painting genres were still lifes and market and kitchen scenes.  Beuckelaer was born in Antwerp in 1533 and was the nephew of Pieter Aertsen the Dutch historical painter whom he trained under.  By his late twenties Beucklaer was a master painter in his own right although a number of his paintings were based on themes used by Aertsen, the general opinion was that the standard of the former pupil’s work was greater than that of his master.  Both Aersten and Beuckelaer were renowned for their paintings depicting scenes from inside a kitchen and of scenes at the market both of which always included many still-life depictions of food.  As is the case of my featured paintings over the following days, Beuckelaer would also include a relevant biblical subject within the painting of domestic life and maybe it was intention to compare the stress of physical life on this earth and spiritual life.  It is interesting to note that the religious subject in each painting is consigned to the background of each work of art.
The set of paintings I am featuring over the next few days is entitled The Four Elements,  which Beuckelaer painted between 1569 and 1570 and they take as their theme the four classical elements of Earth,  Water,  Air and Fire.  It is thought that the set of paintings  were destined for an Italian patron.
Today I am featuring The Four Elements: Water, which was completed by Beuckelaer in 1569.  Here in front of us is a scene at a fish market.  The artist has depicted twelve different identifiable varieties of fish.  Some art historians believe that the twelve represent the twelve disciples.  It is thought that he was the first painter to depict the market fish stalls at Antwerp.  Before us we gaze at the stall holders and we start to feel a little uncomfortable with the way they stare out at us.  The older lady to the left has a resigned expression on her face as if it is “just another day selling fish”.  She is not smiling.  She looks tired as she holds out the tray of fish for us to examine.  The man to the right, who maybe her son, rests his right hand on a trestle table as he proudly shows us the underbelly of a large fish.  It is interesting to look at the left background and see how Beuckelaer has used steep perspective in the way he depicts the bustling street going off into the distance.

However what is more fascinating and in some ways more bizarre is what we see though the central arch in the background.  This is not part of the landscape to the rear of the fish market but is in fact a scene from the bible.  It is the time when Christ appeared to the disciples.  This was the third sighting of Christ since the Resurrection and the scene is based on the Gospel by Luke 5: 1-11, in which we are told that Jesus told the despondent fishermen, including Simon Peter, who were washing their nets after a fruitless days fishing, to “put out to the deep water and once again let down their nets”.  Peter questioned the merit of this advice but did so and they caught innumerable fish and this has been referred to as the Miracle of the Fishermen.

This is a picture, which has a wonderful array of colours , fascinating characters and  along with the other three works makes for a beautiful set of paintings.