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.


  • Title: The Four Elements: Air
  • Creator: Joachim Beuckelaer
  • Date Created: 1570
  • Physical Dimensions: w2155 x h1577 cm
  • Type: Painting
  • Medium: Oil on canvas
  • School: Early Netherlandish
  • More Info: Explore the National Gallery’s paintings online
  • Full Title: The Four Elements: Air. A Poultry Market with the Prodigal Son in the Background
  • Artist Dates: active 1560–1574
  • Artist Biography: From an Antwerp family of painters, Beuckelaer trained in the studio of Pieter Aertsen. In 1560 he became an independent master, and continued to develop themes in painting pioneered by Aertsen, arguably surpassing him in skill. Both Beuckelaer and Aertsen are particularly known for their market and kitchen scenes, which display provisions and domestic activity with illusionistic details but on an often heroic scale. These scenes frequently form a foil to a biblical subject in the background, and suggest a deliberate contrast between the physical and the spiritual.
  • Acquisition Credit: Bought, 2001

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