By Jan Brueghel the Elder, also known as “Velvet” Brueghel because of the delicacy of his brushwork. Flemish, 1568 – 1625
1606. Oil on copperplate. Not on display
From: Suárez Blanco, A.: Splendor, Myth, and Vision. Nudes from the Prado (2016):
“In this painting, Ceres, goddess of agriculture and fertility, is surrounded by fruits and flowers, pictured as the personification of Abundance holding the horn of plenty in her hands. The history of the horn of plenty is taken from two texts by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE-CE 17/18), Metamorphoses (IX, 80-100) and Book of Days (V, 121-24). The idea of prosperity is completed by the personifications of the four elements in the form of two female figures on the ground beside her, and two males, in the air.
Below, the allegorical figures of Earth and Water are accompanied by different types of sea creatures, fruits, and flowers, which they offer to the goddess, emphasizing her central position by their postures. Above, the figure symbolizing Fire holds a torch, while the personification of Air is surrounded by birds. Their pictorial depiction refers to the inherent equilibrium among the elements and their presence at the origin of nature.
The relationship of the four elements to the universe was first set forth in Aristotle´s (384-322 BCE) Physics, in which earth, water, fire, and air are presented as the four substances that constitute the entire world. The subject´s representation alluded to nature and its sensual beauty, which is emphasized here by the nudity of the figures, most of which are female. In this case, the artist chose Ceres as the personification, as given in Cesare Ripa’s (1560-1622) Iconologia, published in 1593.
Toward the end of his life, Jan Brueghel the Elder dedicated a portion of his production to allegorical series of the senses, abundance, and the four elements, which were very popular themes in Flemish painting of the seventeenth century. He often collaborated with other artists, as was common practice in seventeenth-century Antwerp.
In this instance, the Brussels artist Hendrik de Clerck painted the figures. Jan Brueghel the Elder´s contribution in this series was to include these allegories in a landscape, allowing him to display his knowledge of the visible world as well as his extraordinary technical mastery in the depiction of animals, flowers, and natural elements.
The Spanish monarchy had a fondness for Jan Brueghel the Elder´s works, as well as this subject in particular. Other examples were already present in the Spanish Royal Collections, including Brueghel and Hendrik van Balen´s Abundance with the Four Elements (P). The present painting´s arrival in Spain is documented in 1727 in the collection of King Philip V. In 1746, it hung alongside many other paintings in the monarch’s bedroom in the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso. After a period at the Royal Palace of Aranjuez, it entered the Real Museo de Pinturas (now the Museo Nacional del Prado) with many other allegories painted by Jan Brueghel the Elder. The work was confined to the sala reservada, where most of the nude paintings were hung, including those that had previously been in the hall of the same name at the Real Academia de San Fernando.”