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.

The Effects of Intemperance by Jan Steen

The Effects of Intemperance by Jan Steen (c.1665)

I have featured many paintings, mainly by Dutch or Flemish artists, which try and have an embedded moral message in their works of art.  Often it is about the dangers of drinking too much, which is a subject painters from our present time may find very topical.   My Daily Art Display today features one such 17th century painting entitled The Effects of Intemperance by the Dutch painter Jan Steen.

Jan Havickszoon Steen was born in 1626 in Leiden a town in the Netherlands and was a contemporary of the great Rembrandt van Rijn.  He received his artistic education from the German painter of the Dutch Golden Age, Niclaes Knupfer who gained a reputation for his historical and figurative scenes of Utrecht.  At the age of twenty-two Steen joined the Saint Lukes Guild of Painters in Leiden.  Steen then moved to The Hague where he lodged in the household of the prolific landscape painter Jan van Goyen.  Soon after, he married Margriet, the daughter of van Goyen.  Jan and his father-in-law worked together closely for the next five years.  Then he moved and went to live in Warmond and later Haarlem.  His wife died in 1669 and his father-in-law passed away a year later.  Steen returned to Leiden re-married and had two children and remained there until his death in 1679 at the age of  53.
So back to today’s featured painting which is a pictorial moral tale of the dangers of insobriety.  The painting illustrates well the Dutch proverb “De Wijn is een spotter” translated means: Wine is a mocker, in other words wine (or drinking it in excess) will make a fool of you.  Although we see the children misbehaving the onus of guilt is placed squarely on the shoulders of the adults.

The main character of the painting is a woman who we see sitting slumped on the steps of her house sleeping off the effects of having drunk too much alcohol.  The overturned flagon of wine lies on the floor and despite the noise and antics of the children she doesn’t wake.   She is being portrayed as the neglectful mother.  She is totally unaware of what is happening around her.  However, she is no peasant.  Look at her clothes.  These are not ragged and threadbare.  The fur-trimmed jacket, in fact, looks both expensive and stylish.  Maybe the moral of the tale is that an excess of alcohol can affect rich and poor alike.  Her comatose state is going to cause a disaster as we see that her lit pipe is just about to slide from her fingers on to her dress.  The hem of her dress rests perilously close to the rim of the small clay brazier by her side which she has been using to keep her pipe alight and soon her clothes will surely catch fire.  It should also be remembered that at this time in the Netherlands most houses were of wood construction and fire had become a great hazard of life for those living in these dwellings.

The child behind her is stealthily filching the purse from the pocket of her dress, watching her carefully in case she stirs.  Again we are reminded of the Dutch proverb which states “opportunity makes the thief”.  This painting, in some ways,  mirrors Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs but on a smaller scale.    Look at the girl kneeling in front of the comatose woman. Maybe it is her eldest daughter.  She is offering the parrot a drink of wine from a glass.  The girl looks unsteady and her face is flushed.   Maybe she too has imbibed to excess.  Are we being reminded that the sins of the mother will be passed on to the child?

Next to the mother we see a boy clutching a bunch of roses.  He is throwing them to the pig which is busy snuffling around the legs of the woman in search of food.  We know of the biblical proverb “ Nether caste ye youre pearles before swine”  meaning that it is a worthless gesture of offering items of quality to those who aren’t cultured enough to appreciate them.  However the Dutch proverb doesn’t talk about pearls but instead – rose buds.  So what we are seeing in the painting is the rose-strewn pig, which simply symbolises how people waste what they have.

To the right of the mother we see three small children feeding a meat pie to the cat.  Again, this is highlighting the folly of waste.  It is interesting to note what is hanging above the drunken woman’s head.  It is a basket, in which there is a pair of crutches and a birch.  This is to be a reminder of what happens if you throw money away and mismanage your finances.  The crutch is a reminder of life as a beggar and the birch is a salutary warning of what happens if you are hauled to court because of bad debts.  Look back at My Daily Art Display of February 16th and Jan Steen’s painting entitled In Luxury, Look Out,  in which  the artist had depicted a similar scenario and the same moral tale that is being depicted by the artist in today’s painting.  In it we can see the same basket hanging above the miscreant.

Take a look at the background on the right hand side of the painting.  Here we see a man, maybe the husband of the drunken woman, sitting in the garden on a bench with a buxom young serving wench on his knee.  He is oblivious to what is going on around him and prefers to carouse with the young girl.

The Dutch painter and biographer of artists from the Dutch Golden Age, Arnold Houbraken, wrote about Jan Steen, recording that the household of Steen himself was both “riotous and disorganised” and that Steen, not being able to bring in enough money from his paintings ran an inn but Houbraken cynically pointed out that Steen’s best customer was himself!  However maybe the facts do not bear out the biographer’s assertions for Steen completed over 1400 pictures in a span of 30 years,  so could he possibly have had time to waste by drinking in his inn?  In yesterdays offering I spoke about artists liking to incorporate their own image into their paintings and Steen was no different.  He would even add his wife’s image into some of his bawdy pub scenes and she, rather than being flattered by her inclusion, would claim that her husband was always showing her as a “horny tart, a matchmaker or a drunken whore”!  It could be that she was the model for the drunken woman in today’s painting.

The chaos which reigns in this painting is similar to the themes in many of his household scenes and “a Steen household” is a Dutch phrase which means a household which is a badly managed and in total chaos.

Nymphs by a Fountain by Sir Peter Lely

Nymphs by a Fountain by Sir Peter Lely (c.1650)

Peter Lely, a Dutch Baroque painter, was born in Soest, a town in North Rhine-Westphalia, in 1618.  He was actually born with the name Pieter van der Faes.  His mother Abigael van Vliet came from a wealthy Utrecht family and his father Johan van der Faes was a captain in the forces of Baron Walraven van Gent, which served the Elector of Brandenburg and which was stationed in Soest.  Pieter became known as “Lely” which is the Dutch word for lily as on the facade of his father’s house in The Hague was a heraldic lily.  From an early age Peter studied painting under the tutelage of Pieter de Greber and at the age of nineteen became a member of the Guild of St Luke in Haarlem where he had gone to live and work.

At the age of twenty-three Lely left the Netherlands for England and arrived in London around 1642.  He originally focused his works of art on landscapes and history painting but he turned to portraiture as there was a great demand for this painting genre and he soon built up a reputation as a great portraitist.  His commissions came from the likes of Charles I and later Cromwell but the height of artistic career came during the reign of Charles II when he became the king’s official painter and painted many of the royal courtiers and their mistresses in a style, which art historians termed a “Baroque swagger”.  In 1661 the king awarded him a stipend of two hundred pounds a year.  He dominated the portraiture scene from the mid seventeenth century until his death.  Eight years later in 1689 he was knighted but sadly a year later he died at the age of 71.  It was said that he was found slumped before his easel with his palette still in his hand having been working on a portrait of the Duchess of Somerset.

Sir Peter Lily as well as being an artist was also an art collector which during his lifetime was valued at over ten thousand pounds.  His collection was immense having started it once he had arrived in England.  After he died is collection was sold.  Amongst the prized collection were works by Veronese, Titian, Giorgione, Reni, Rubens and Frans Hals, just to mention but a few.

My Daily Art Display for today is one of his mythology paintings which were usually set in Arcadian landscapes.  It is a very erotic painting and is probably his most famous non-portrait work.  It is entitled Nymphs by a Fountain which he completed around 1650, the year after King Charles I was executed  I saw this painting when I visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London.  It is set in late evening time and in it we see a group of female figures in various states of undress grouped together at the foot of a fountain with its sculpture of a dolphin and putti.  It is a woodland setting, bathed in warm evening sunlight, surrounded by long shadows.  But who are these semi-clad females?  Nobody seems able to pin the scene down to a mythological episode.  So why are they lying by the fountain?  Are they supposed to be asleep?  Too many unanswered questions but maybe there is very little point in seeking answers.  Maybe this is not a painting that needs interpretation.  Maybe we shouldn’t look for hidden symbolism and just take it on face value.  It could well be that, as far as the artist was concerned, it was just an excuse to paint female nudity. 

The figures in the painting have not been romanticised.  The females have dishevelled hair as they are seen lying on discarded silk dresses and white linen shifts  Lely has painted the females, not as perfect body forms, but with, what one would term, “slight imperfections”.  The nymph in the lower left of the painting has a somewhat plump stomach.  The one at the front with her back to us has dirty feet whilst the breasts of the nymph lying on her back to the left of the fountain have flattened with their own eight. This is no portrayal of sculptured beauties with skins of marble.  These are not idealised beauties and yet there is sensuousness about the way they are depicted.  Is this merely an erotic painting which has no hidden meaning and is thus, just for the voyeur who enjoys looking at, and is aroused by, this genre of art?

The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand by Albrecht Dürer

The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand by Albrecht Dürer (1508)

This picture fascinated me.  It is a very disturbing work of art.    It was full of everything going on and one could spend ages looking at all the details of the scene.  I love this type of painting.  I love discovering new things every time I gaze at it.  I am starting to think that maybe instead of looking at Old Masters I should concentrate on “Where’s Waldo” pictures – only kidding !

The painting in My Daily Art Display is entitled The Martyrdom of Ten Thousand by Albrecht Dürer, which he painted in 1508 and it can now be found in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.  This was an altarpiece commissioned by the Elector of Saxony Frederick the Wise for the chamber of relics in his Wittenberg castle chapel.  Frederick is said to have owned relics from the actual massacre and kept them in this chapel.  He displayed them annually until Martin Luther prohibited the practice.

The scene is based on a story from Jacobus de Voragine’s collection of stories about the saints entitled Legenda aurea or Golden Legend.  The legend in question is the massacre of ten thousand men by the Persian King Saporat.  According to the legend the Roman Emperors Hadrian and Antonius marched at the head of a large army on a campaign to Asia Minor to suppress the revolt of the Gadarenes and the people of the Euphrates region.   However the battle didn’t go well and all fled except nine thousand soldiers. These had been converted to Christianity after angels appeared to them, promising victory.  Buoyed up with that knowledge the nine thousand soldiers attacked and completely routed the enemy.  When the two emperors heard of this great victory they sent for the men, telling them to come home and join in the sacrafices of thanksgiving to the gods.  The men refused to return and worship “false gods”.  The emperors enraged by their disobedience asked the five kings, rulers of this area, to help in bringing back the “converts”.  The kings gathered up a huge army and the converts were trapped on Mount Arafat.  Their safe passage home was guaranteed providing they denied their faith.  However they refused and were stoned but according to the legend the stones just rebounded against their persecutors.   At seeing this miracle another thousand soldiers deserted the attacking hordes and joined the nine thousand converts.  It was at this point the emperors ordered every one of the ten thousand men to be crucified.

The Artist and friend

So let us now look at this fascinating painting in which Durer has depicted the killing of these ten thousand converts.  If you look carefully at the centre of the picture you will see two men dressed in black.  On the right we have Dürer himself holding a stick attached to which is a note which reads:

This work was done in the year 1508 by Albrecht Dürer, German

Next to him stands his friend Konrad Celtis, the German Renaissance humanist and scholar who actually died before the painting was completed.  Maybe his inclusion was Dürer’s memorial tribute to his friend.  It always fascinates me to see how many artists paint themselves into their own pictures, often part of crowd scenes.  It is a little bit like Alfred Hitchcock who always appeared for a few seconds in his own films.

The Oriental Potentate

If you look in the foreground on the right-hand side you can see one of the kings of Euphrates who had been called in by the two Roman emperors to suppress the “rebellion”.   He is resplendent in his blue cloak and white turban which makes him stand out from the others.  Art historians believe that Dürer’s  portrayal of the oriental potentate was a reference to the threat of a Turkish invasion into Europe, since fifty years earlier, Constantinople had been captured and people were concerned that the marauding armies may move further westward.

The killings

There is a savagery to this painting as we see the converts being systematically killed, some by crucifixion whilst others are being thrown off high cliffs.  In the foreground to the left, we can see one blindfolded man about to be decapitated.  On the ground we see a decapitated head.  In the centre foreground we see a man with his foot on the chest of a convert about to drive a stake through his heart.  It is all very grizzly.

Men being led to their deaths

 To the right of the middle-ground we see a line of men, some naked, tied together in a line being marched up the mountain where they would eventually be thrown off the cliffs to their death.  To the left of the line we see a man with a heavy boulder held above his head about to hurl it downwards on to the skull of a hapless convert.

It is a veritable bloodbath of a picture and the details may make you feel uncomfortable but the detail and the colours make this one of my favourite paintings.


The Death of Cleopatra by Guido Cagnacci

The Death of Cleopatra by Guido Cagnacci (1660)

 My Daily Art Display today features not one but two paintings.  Both are by the same artist Guido Cagnacci and both have the same theme, namely, the death of Cleopatra. 

Guido Cagnacci was an Italian painter of the late Baroque period belonging to the Bolognese School which rivalled Florence and Rome as centres of painting.    He was born in 1601 in  Santarcangelo di Romagna, a town in the province of Rimini  where he spent the early part of his life.  Later, he spent time in Rome where he met fellow artists Simon Vouet, Guernico and was a pupil of Guido Reni.  It is also believed that during this time he may also have studied under an ageing Ludovicio Carracci.  He moved back east to Venice in 1650 and started to paint very sensual scenes with seductive, half-naked girls as his subject.  These erotic paintings were very popular and much sought after by collectors at the time and his popularity spread .  In 1658 he journeyed to Vienna where he gained the patronage of Emperor Leopold I and that was his ticket to fame and riches.  His later paintings featured semi-naked women as Lucretia, Cleopatra and even Mary Magdalene.

The painting above entitled The Death of Cleopatra was completed by him in 1660 and now hangs in the Brera Gallery in Milan.   This painting is charged with sensuality and we see Cleopatra slumped in an upright chair, naked down to the waist.  She has been bitten by the asp which we see trapped between the arm of the chair and her right arm.   Her eyes are almost closed as she drifts towards unconciousness.  Her head has fallen back against the red leather of the chair.  The curls of her golden hair reach down to her shoulder.  Even at the point of death she retains her beauty.  Her facial expression is one of tranquility and not one contorted with pain.  In her final moments she loses none of her radiance.

Death of Cleopatra by Cagnacci (1658)

The second painting by Cagnacci which I am featuring entitled The Death of Cleopatra was painted two years before the first one I featured.  It was completed around 1658 and now hangs in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna.

In this painting we see Cleopatra, not alone, but with six of her handmaidens.  Look at the contrast between Cleopatra and her handmaidens.  See how Cagnacci has shown the realism of the weeping servants.  The faces of some are contorted with anguish whilst others just dissolve into tears for the plight of their mistress.   The handmaiden in the left  foreground points towards the snake, said to be an asp,  and like the woman next to her holds up her other hand to shield herself from any attack from the creature.  But look at Cleopatra.  Cagnacci has once again painted her half slumped in the chair this time with her head fallen to one side.   Once again we see the small snake trapped between the arm of the chair and her arm.  Maybe the squeezing of the snake’s body has caused it to strike.   Again as was the case in the first painting, Cleopatra seems at peace with the world and once again there are no facial expressions which would lead us to believe that her death had been in any way painful.

It is that very last point about the peaceful look on Cleopatra’s face that brings me to an interesting point of view made by the German historian and author of a best-seller entitled Cleopatra,  Christoph Schäfer, who has researched the death of Cleopatra caused by the snake.   He has looked back at historical texts and one report, written about 200 years after Cleopatra’s death, stated that Cleopatra died a quiet and peaceful death, and this is exactly how Cagnacci has portrayed the victim in both his paintings, which does not correlate with death by asp bite – a  long, painful and disfiguring way to go.

Schäfer’s other findings have also destroyed our long-held beliefs re the 2000 year-old legend of the Queens death,  for he also highlights the fact that the story of Cleopatra, which we are used to, is highly unlikely.  His examination of ancient texts in Alexandria revealed that Egyptians knew a lot about poisons, and one papyrus reported that Cleopatra tested these poisons on herself.  He also states that Cleopatra died in the middle of an Egyptian summer, so temperatures would most likely have been too high for an asp to stay still enough to bite.  Of course in our two paintings Cagnacci has shown the snake trapped under her arm and unable to wriggle free!   Having discussed his thoughts with a toxicologist, Schäfer concluded that the most likely method of death was a drug combination of opium, wolfsbane and hemlock, which was known at that time to induce a painless death.

I will end here and let you decide how Cleopatra died,  but do not let the different theories detract from these two beautiful paintings