The Four Elements: Water

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.

Twelve different varieties of fish have been identified among those offered for sale in this painting. The direct gaze of the stall holders is particularly striking, as is Beuckelaer's use of steep perspective framing the street vista to the left. Framed by the central arch is the scene of Christ appearning to the disciples for the third time after his Resurrection to perform the miracle by which fish appear in hitherto empty nets.

Personal response: Oliver Peyton
Restauranteur Oliver Peyton examines the food on display in 'The Four Elements' - 5 mins 18 secs

Oliver Peyton: I pass these paintings every day and people often ask me what are my favourite food paintings. I mean, there is just no better room in the world to observe the beauty of food painting and depiction. The really strange thing about this painting is that it’s not seasonal. You would expect at the time with the lack of refrigeration that they would have just had whatever was available to them in the Low Countries, or the near Low Countries if you know what I mean, but what you have here is a very very divergent set of fruit and vegetables which really are available all year round. And it’s about… and that really is a symbol of wealth. It really was about how successful Holland had become, how successful the Dutch had become, and this concept of showing off their wealth and how they had travelled the world, and how they had conquered far-off parts and brought back all these amazing things.

There are 62 different fruit and vegetables here and I think one has to be surprised really when you look at our society today, and when you see the genuine abundance that was available to people in the 1500s… you know, you’re talking about 1550, something like that, you know… I just find that sort of astonishing that without refrigeration they were able to have all this available to them. And also the way fruit is depicted… this is fruit that is depicted in a manner that is quite real… one senses the ability to reach in and touch the food.

Miranda Hinkley: I mean, if we look at that cabbage right in the middle – I mean, she’s holding it up lovingly with all the pride of a mother showing off her baby, it’s just incredibly painted isn’t it, the detail…

Oliver Peyton: Absolutely, absolutely. But, you know, when you look at this whole series… I mean, personally I’m very interested in the meat one which is again…

Miranda Hinkley: Let’s take a look at that…

Oliver Peyton: What you have here is a kitchen which is, you know, in full flow. This is a kitchen of wealth here, it’s in a grand house, in a household where they have, where they’re about to prepare a feast. It’s also… I quite like the way the people’s hands are depicted here, the women’s hands are… you know, kitchen work was tough work. This wasn’t a Nigella-Lawson type of dainty fairy cake – ‘whoopee, let’s all have chocolate on it’ type of affair – this is proper hard graft.

Miranda Hinkley: I mean, this is plucking fowl, isn’t it, and scrubbing oysters and mussels – you can see mussel shells on the floor – I mean, if we look across now at this wonderful market depiction of game, there’s that same idea, isn’t there, that, you know, these are strong women, they’ve got strong arms, it’s not the kind of dainty hands of aristocrats, but yet they’re painted with such sensitivity.

Oliver Peyton: This is a scene of prosperity. If you look at the houses around, this is not a poor neighbourhood, it’s an affluent neighbourhood. I mean, this is capitalism, this is about, to me, depicting the prosperity of Holland. These paintings really symbolise the graft, the endeavour, how proud Dutch people were of what they had achieved. And you really sense this from the paintings – these are paintings of self-congratulation in a way, but in a good way, because they’re so detailed, and when you look at almost all of these paintings, you can tell what the fish are, you can tell what the fruit are, and in some cases you can tell what the variety of the apple is, so that’s the extent of the detail of these pictures, so it’s pretty amazing. I mean, that salmon looks like it’s ready to go in a pan, if you know what I mean…

Miranda Hinkley: Absolutely…

Oliver Peyton: But to me, the thing that I find most gratifying is how little has changed in what we eat. You know, all this fish is available today, all the veg, everything we see is still available and, you know, our society, although we’ve changed, what we’re producing out of the land, and the earth, and the sea and from the skies is really, by and large, still the same. We might be able to have tuna from the Maldives or wherever else, but, by and large, we are still eating the same way, and in some ways, we’re sort of reverting back to this type of eating.

When I was compiling the cookbook, I walked from the National Café to the National Dining Rooms and I always walked through these paintings here, and they had quite a big influence on me in terms of how I thought even about food, because I always sort of stop, even if it’s just for one second, or even if I’m walking, I slow down and sort of glance at them, because it reminds me of what I do, it reminds me of what we should be doing in a way. You know, I want to create a sort of  balanced, how-we-eat-now type of cookbook. It’s not meant to change the world – I don’t think food changes the world – I think good quality produce and good preparation is very important, but I think what we’ve tried to do is an unpretentious cookbook that sort of helps people cook fine quality British food, rather than any sort of let-me-show-you-how-smart-I-am kind of thing, and part of that influence is walking past these paintings for me, because I’m sort of reminded that little has changed, and how important it is to live our lives in a manner that is close to the earth.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Oliver Peyton.

From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty Nine, March 2009

Key facts

Artist dates
probably about 1535; died 1575
Full title
The Four Elements: Water
Date made
Medium and support
Oil on canvas
158.1 × 214.9 cm
Inscription summary
Signed; Dated
Acquisition credit
Bought, 2001
Inventory number
Location in Gallery

Other paintings in the group: The Four Elements

Joachim Beuckelaer
Joachim Beuckelaer: 'The Four Elements: Earth'
Joachim Beuckelaer
Joachim Beuckelaer: 'The Four Elements: Air'
Joachim Beuckelaer
Joachim Beuckelaer: 'The Four Elements: Fire'