Young Brueghel leads Old Master Sale with The Four Elements

An astonishing set of four oil on copper panels by Jan Brueghel the Younger (1601-1678) leads the Old Master Paintings sale at Bonhams New Bond Street on Wednesday 3 July. The Four Elements: An Allegory of Earth; An Allegory of Water; An Allegory of Air; and An Allegory of Fire have been miraculously well preserved as a quartet for almost 400 years, and the set has an estimate of £800,000-1,200,000.

The series is remarkable, primarily because its main subjects - the landscapes, figures, flowers and animals - have all been confirmed by art historian and Brueghel specialist, Dr. Klaus Ertz, to be by Brueghel's own hand. This is a rarity, as it was common practice for him to collaborate with many of his fellow artists, including Rubens and Hendrick van Balen.

Allegories of the Four Elements had become a well-established theme of Renaissance painting by the time Brueghel began this series, around 1625, yet he approached these with a youthful flair.

Writing in Bonhams Magazine, art historian and critic Susan Moore describes his innovative composition of An Allegory of Earth: "Dispensing with the usual Ceres, goddess of agriculture and fertility, he has produced instead a paradise landscape. Such gatherings of beasts had become a hugely popular genre, whether ostensibly representing mythological subjects such as Orpheus charming the animals, or biblical scenes. Here, a closer inspection suggests the latter, a sense of a procession of creatures making their way two by two towards a tiny ark visible in the background."

The vogue for 'paradise landscapes' were symptomatic of the era of the Scientific Revolution when connoisseurs began to assemble collections of natural history. Brueghel drew upon these collections for research so that he could depict flora and fauna with technical accuracy. The subject matter also gave him free rein to explore his love for exotic nature as well as to imbue his landscapes with religious and classical symbolism.

Andrew McKenzie, Department Director of Old Master Paintings, said, "It is extremely rare to find fresh examples of this importance coming to market. We are also very grateful to Dr Klaus Ertz for confirming the attribution, and that, in his view, the landscapes, animals, flowers and figures are all by the hand of Jan Brueghel the Younger."

For more on Brueghel and the Four Elements, read Susan Moore's full article in Bonhams Magazine, Issue 59, pages 30-33:

Other highlights of the sale include:

- John Constable R.A. (1776-1837) East Bergholt Common, a plein air sketch depicting a view close to East Bergholt House, the Constable family home. Dated to 1810, this small yet vigorous oil marks a turning point in Constable's technique, moving towards a markedly stronger palette. Estimate, £200,000-300,000.

- Jusepe de Ribera (1588-1656) Saint Jerome in prayer, a recently authenticated autographed replica of the artist's larger Saint Jerome, which hangs in Milan's Castello Sforzesco. Replicas such as this, of artists' most successful masterpieces, were often requested by patrons. Estimate, £150,000-200,000.

- Ambrosius Benson (circa 1495-1550) Portrait of a gentleman, half-length, in fur-trimmed robes, holding a letter. Benson painted relatively few portraits, although they are widely considered to be his best works. Estimate, £100,000-150,000.

- John Constable R.A. (1776-1837) Flatford Old Bridge and Bridge Cottage. In October 1827, Constable took two of his children on holiday to Flatford, giving him ample opportunity to complete 27 drawings of the River Stour and surrounding scenery. This work is very closely related to another that his daughter Isabel (who sadly was uninvited on the Flatford retreat) gave to the Victoria & Albert museum in 1888. Estimate, £20,000-30,000.

- John Constable R.A. (1776-1837) The Vale of Dedham. One of the few sketches that Constable dated in 1805, and the earliest dated study for his 1815 Royal Academy exhibit, The Stour Valley and Dedham Village. Estimate: £15,000-20,000.


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