de jonckheere old masters

Abraham Janssens

The Four Elements

Panel: 50,4 x 64,4 cm


In 1608, at the height of his success, Abraham Janssens painted a work of great quality that was to make him famous throughout the Netherlands: ‘The Four Elements’. This vast painting (166 x 200 cm) was put on public exhibition the year it was painted and was hugely successful. ‘The Four Elements’ made Janssens the most popular artist in Antwerp. Sold at auction in 1936, the work has now disappeared.

As a result of this success, the artist painted the same composition in a smaller format (50,4 x 64,4 cm). Ordered by a collector from Antwerp for his private cabinet, our version is dated 1616/1617. Owing to the high level of quality and its perfect resemblance with the work of 1608, it can be attributed to Abraham Janssens without a doubt.

The cleverly organised scenes and the elaborate arrangement of the figures, characteristic of his earlier works, brings the spirit of this painting closer to the style of Rubens. He gives his powerfully shaped figures undetermined attitudes and expressions. Identifiable by its horn of abundance, the Earth is represented by a richly clothed old woman whose head is decorated with a ‘refined wreath’. Water is illustrated as a naked young woman wearing a crown of reeds. She is sitting on a rock and moving her sceptre to make water run that will bring to life the fish scattered at her feet. The peacock – the attribute of Juno, queen of heaven – along with the rainbow and the wings of the second naked woman, allow us to identify this scene as the personification of Air. As for Fire, he turns his back on us. Sitting on a canon that is spewing flames, this young man who resembles the god Mars, is wearing a helmet decorated with the fire salamander.

We can clearly see Abraham Janssens’ taste for antiquity in this painting. The painter remained strongly influenced by his Venetian, Florentine and Roman contemporaries. Spurred on by the strong impetus of Italian art in terms of plasticity and expressiveness, he favoured contours to give his figures a voluminous and sculptural character. He splendidly demonstrates his artistic ability and aptitude at creating beautiful female nudes with gentle, classical faces, thus respecting the canons of beauty of classical Italy. A master of chiaroscuro, he liked his paintings to be composed of strong contrasts of light and shade. He uses it here with precision for a most spectacular rendering.

Appreciated by his contemporaries, the paintings of Abraham Janssens still figure among the best collections today. This fabulous portrayal of the Four Elements is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished and most important in the artist’s career.

Provenance :
Private collection, South Germany;
Private collection.

Littérature :
A reproduction of this painting features in the catalogue raisonné of Abraham Janssens, which is currently in preparation: Joost Vander Auwera: Abraham Janssens, Diss. Unvi. Ghent 2003, soon published, p. 804-805.

same artist