This outstanding painting can be considered to be a masterpiece of Jan van Dalen I. Very little is known about the life and work of this mysterious artist. He lived in the Southern Netherlands and was active in Antwerp in 1632-1670. His work has been confused with a namesake Jan van Dalen II (Gorinchem c. 1610-after 1677) who was active in the Northern Netherlands and apparently specialised in portraiture.
The present picture is one of only very few autograph works by Jan van Dalen and is fully signed and dated 1653. From the same year is a Tambourine player in the Michaelis collection, Cape Town (inv. no. 33/3), which is signed with initials; and a half-length figure of a Bacchus in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna (inv. no. GG 1687), which is also signed with initials and dates to 1648.
Van Dalen's style owes much to the artists of the early Roman Baroque. This Allegory of the Four Elements is a nocturnal scene in the tradition of Roman and Dutch Caravaggism. The dramatic lighting and figural recall nocturnal scenes of Alessandro Turchi (Verona 1579-1649 Rome).
Jan van Dalen could be responsible for a pair of paintings signed and dated "J. van Dalen fec. in Roma 1631' (Woman holding an Egg and Boy holding a Glass) which were once in the Liechtenstein Collection, Vienna (with P. de Boer, Amsterdam, 1955 and Brod Gallery, London, 1955). Here, the influence of Caravaggio and the first generation of his followers is even more evident than in his later works, indicating that he likely trained in Rome around 1630 and returned to Antwerp where he came under the influence of Flemish artists and merging Italian and northern style like in the present painting.