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The Four Elements: Earth
Joachim Beuckelaer
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An avalanche of outsize vegetables tumbles towards us on the left of this painting. On the right, glistening fruits are piled in baskets and bowls balanced rather precariously on a wheelbarrow.

The two women at the front, often called stallholders, appear to be buying rather than selling. Their rolled up sleeves and aprons show that they are servants. One has half-filled her shopping basket with apples, the other holds up a giant cabbage. The sellers are probably the couple on the right, who have brought their produce to the well in a wheelbarrow and are preparing it for sale.

This is one of a group of four large paintings where food is used to symbolise the four elements – water, air, earth and fire – with biblical scenes in the background. Here you can see the Flight into Egypt, with the holy family crossing a bridge on the left.

Key facts
Artist Joachim Beuckelaer
Artist dates probably about 1535; died 1575
Full title The Four Elements: Earth
Series The Four Elements
Date made 1569
Medium and support Oil on canvas
Dimensions 158 × 215.4 cm
Inscription summary Signed; Dated
Acquisition credit Bought, 2001
Inventory number NG6585
Location in Gallery Room 14
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The Four Elements

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Packed with fish, fruit, vegetables, birds and animals, these four big pictures are like giant stage sets, teeming with life. Although superficially market and kitchen scenes, the different types of food represent the four elements: vegetables for earth, fish for water, poultry for air and game for fire. In the backgrounds are biblical scenes.

Beuckelaer has created an impression of great abundance and variety, although the foods shown were readily available to ordinary Netherlanders for most of the sixteenth century. However, these pictures were painted at a time of political and religious repression and severe economic recession. They perhaps show a remembered golden age, when food was plentiful.

The group may well have been commissioned in Antwerp by a foreigner, probably the vastly wealthy and cultured Fernão Ximenes, Consul for the Portuguese Nation. By 1884 the paintings were in Florence, in the Palazzo Panciatichi-Ximenes d'Aragona.

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