This is one of a set of four pictures which take as their theme the four elements of 'Earth', 'Water', 'Air' and 'Fire'. In the art of the Low Countries in the later 16th and 17th centuries it became common to symbolise the elements by references to the natural world. Here, seductive representations of market produce for sale or for cooking are combined with relevant Biblical episodes. Beuckelaer's series of paintings are among the earliest and most accomplished fusions of these themes. These four pictures were produced in Antwerp, probably for a patron in Italy.
In this painting, 'Air', different kinds of fowl are offered for sale, some still alive in large wicker baskets, others dead and ready for plucking. On the platter in the centre of the foreground are rabbits, and to either side eggs in a basket and stacks of cheeses. In the middle of the composition, at a distance, the prodigal son is shown leaning against a woman in a debauched manner.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty Nine, March 2009