The idea that the world was composed of four elements was first developed in the 5th century B.C. by the Greek philosopher Empedocles and later expanded on by Plato and Aristotle. The human significance of this concept grew over the centuries with the notion that each element governed one of the four humours from which the temperament was supposed to be similarly formed. On this basis, broadly speaking, fire was associated with desire, water with emotions, earth with stability, and air with thought. This might account for the wide variety of engravings of the Four Elements published in the Netherlands in the late 16th century, which may in turn have influenced Jan Breughel the Elder (1568-1625) in his decision to adopt the theme soon after 1600. His pictorial treatment was entirely new, however, and Alastair Laing has noted how under his direction, 'they developed a new dimension, becoming pictorial encyclopedias of the natural world' (A. Laing, In Trust for the Nation, exhibition catalogue, London, Royal Academy, 1995, p. 166).
Only three surviving series of the elements by Breughel the Elder are known and these are worth mentioning here as they ultimately provided the inspiration for this series and others by the artist's son Jan Breughel the Younger. Around 1605, the artist was commissioned by his lifelong patron Cardinal Federico Borromeo, in Milan, for a series that is now divided between the Ambrosiana, Milan (Fire and Water), and the Louvre, Paris (Earth and Air). These were executed over two decades (Air is dated 1621) in collaboartion with the figure painter Hendrick van Balen. Another set was painted over a shorter period (1606-1611) for Borromeo's friend, the collector Ercole Bianchi, which is now believed to be the series, formerly attributed to Breughel the Younger, in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons (see K. Ertz, Jan Breughel der Jüngere, Freren, 1984, nos. 193-196). The third series, which appear to be repetitions of the pictures in Lyons, is in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilij, Rome. Although there are numerous copies and variants derived from these series by followers of Jan Breughel the Elder, there are only two complete extant series (in addition to this one) by the artist's son: the set at Kingston Lacy, Dorset (National Trust), on copper, in which the elder Breughel may well have had a hand (see A. Laing, op. cit., no. 60); and another on panel, in a private collection (see K. Ertz, op. cit., nos. 198-201).
Exceptionally well preserved, this series constitutes an important addition to the history of treatments of this subject by both the elder and younger Jan Breughel. Although documented since 1831, the pictures have never before been exhibited in public and have remained unpublished since the nineteenth century. While all of the other extant series mentioned above were painted with Hendrick van Balen, this is the only one in which Breughel collaborated with Frans Francken II, suggesting that they were executed sometime after van Balen's death in 1632 and before Francken's own demise in 1642. We know that the two artists were working together at this time by virtue of the only known dated collaborative picture - The Holy Family in a garland of flowers, from 1636 (St. Petersburg, Hermitage). This likely dating for the present works, which is also corroborated on stylistic grounds, makes this the latest of the artist's surviving series of elements.
No doubt Francken must have been aware of van Balen's treatment of the figures in the earlier series. He employs the same principal protagonists in each picture: Venus and Vulcan in Fire; a nymph holding an astrolobe and feathers personifies Air, with the chariot of Apollo in the distance; Ceres holds up a cornucopia in Earth; and Amphitrite personifies Water, with a River God and Neptune on his chariot beyond. However, Francken arranges the figures according to his own design and renders them in his own distinctive fluent manner. The figure groups in Air, Water and Fire, are actually shifted from the left side of the compositions (as they appear in all five series mentioned above), to the right, altering the way in which the pictures interact together.
The early history of these panels is unknown but by 1831 they are documented in the collection of Leopold I, first King of Belgians (1790-1865), at Marlborough House in London. He lived there from 1816 following his marriage to Charlotte, Princess of Wales, heir presumptive and only child of King George IV, and although she died in childbirth in 1817, he continued to use the house until he became King of the Belgians in 1831. This series belonged to a group of around thirty pictures that Leopold took with him from Marlborough House that were listed in an undated inventory during his lifetime and another after his death in 1867, when the group was still referred to as the Marlborough House Collection (see literature; and see fig.1). Whether Leopold had inherited the Marlborough House pictures or acquired them himself is not clear. They have remained in his family ever since.
We are grateful to Geneviève Tellier for her assistance in establishing the nineteenth century provenance of these pictures. An image of these works has been requested for use in a forthcoming publication titled Les Jardins du paradis dans la peinture du Nord.