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Family of Jan Brueghel the Elder

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Allegory of Air

This work belongs to a series of Allegories of the Elements that also included an Allegory of Earth, Allegory of Water and an Allegory of Fire. It is painted on copper, which - along with Brueghel's delicate technique -- increases the brilliance of its colours and the smoothness of its surface, producing an effect that is almost enamel-like. Brueghel often painted on copper, and on a small-scale - this picture measures only 21.2 x 31.7 cm - and you can see why such pictures were considered so precious and sought-after by collectors. Indeed, the series to which this painting belongs was commissioned by Brueghel's most important Italian patron, the influential Cardinal Federico Borromeo in Milan.

Allegories of the elements form an important part of Brueghel's oeuvre. As with so many other genres, he transformed the conventional format of these allegories, which were a popular subject with artists throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Such allegories were often engraved and issued in print and often consisted of little more than a personification of each element, bearing their traditional attributes so that the viewer could identify it. Any accompanying imagery was usually subsidiary to the large, central, allegorical human figure. Brueghel, however, reversed the conventional relationship between figure and landscape, transforming allegories of the elements into veritable 'allegorical landscapes'. He replaced the traditional attributes of the personifications with motifs and objects drawn from the natural world to aid the viewer in identifying each element.

Here, Brueghel has come up with a highly original means of depicting an allegory of air, and one that shows off his talent to the full. Appropriately enough, the bird-filled sky takes up about three-quarters of the picture surface. The slender slab of earth in the lower left corner is filled with birds of every description - some very exotic - and effectively serves as a launch-pad for both the birds and for Urania, the muse or goddess of astronomy who floats up into the air. We recognise her by the astrolabe she holds in her right hand, an instrument for measuring the position of the moon and planets. Winged cherubs can be seen floating in the air in the distance, and Apollo, the god of the sun, is flying through the sky, in his chariot drawn by winged horses.

The Antwerp artist Hendrik van Balen probably executed the figures. Brueghel collaborated with him in numerous works.

Paintings by Jan Brueghel: Flowers in a Ceramic Vase

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Allegory of Air, 1611

Jan Brueghel (Private Collection)

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