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.


  • Title: The Four Elements: Water
  • Creator: Joachim Beuckelaer
  • Date Created: 1569
  • Physical Dimensions: 158.1 × 214.9 cm
  • Type: Painting
  • Medium: Oil on canvas
  • School: Early Netherlandish
  • More Info: Explore the National Gallery’s paintings online
  • Inventory number: NG6586
  • Artist Dates: probably about 1535; died 1575
  • 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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