Water is represented here by a figure who is probably one of the nymphs seduced by Neptune (the god can be seen riding in triumph on the sea in the background). She is surrounded by all the fantastic creatures of the sea on the land and two flying fish hover in the sky.
Many versions of sets of allegorical depictions of the four elements came out of the Brueghels' Antwerp studio. The sets were popular in Italy, particularly with their patron Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564–1631), Archbishop of Milan and founder of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, and his assistant Ercole Bianchi, who enjoyed a set with naked figures. In Spain, Philip IV distributed sets among the ladies of the court.
The sets evolved from an individual piece showing all the elements together in a unified scene (each bearing appropriate attributes and including a profusion of botanical and zoological detail) to four separate works.
This work was painted during Jan Brueghel the elder's lifetime by his son and studio assistant. This set was not recorded at Kingston Lacy until 1905 and was probably bought by the widow of Walter Ralph Bankes.
Where to see this painting?
National Trust, Kingston Lacy
Wimborne Minster, Dorset, England, BH21 4EA
If you are planning a visit to see this painting, check with the collection first. Paintings can be moved at short notice.