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You are hereHarvey-LeeHomeHarvey-LeeCatalogues - Main Introduction Harvey-LeeFour Elements


Elizabeth Harvey-Lee, Catalogue 53; Every Picture Tells a Story - Front Cover imageClassical philosophy explained the terrestrial world in terms of the Four Elements: Earth, Air, Fire and Water.

In Renaissance art these became motifs for artists. In northern Europe particularly, publishers found a ready market for sets of prints on this theme, which lent itself to detailed depiction of nature and daily life, as well as more emblematically to personifications, signified by the appropriate attributes, or portrayals as classical gods or goddesses with suitable associations.

By the eighteenth century the theme was largely decorative and adapted to genre scenes and fêtes galantes with youths and maidens in appropriate activities, though Nattier painted four of Louis XV’s daughters, each as a personification of a different element.

Modern prints, through their wide diversity of subject, can be ‘made to fit’ the theme in the mind of this print dealer, though in the majority of cases completely unintentionally on the part of the artist.

Earth, traditionally, can be represented as a woman with several snakes, typical of goddesses of fertility; or with the Cornucopia of Ceres, goddess of agriculture; or the Scorpion of the Roman agricultural goddess Tellus Mater; or wearing a turreted crown taken from Cybele, ancient Phrygian Earth Mother.
Landscapes, and their flora and fauna, in their own right naturally suggest the earth, as well as specific activities such as gathering fruit, digging, watering plants, harvesting wheat, clamping potatoes etc.

Air was sacred to Juno in Antiquity, so can be presented as the goddess with her attribute of the Peacock.
Also, naturally, birds and other flying creatures were traditionally used as symbols of the air; as sometimes the chameleon, because according to Pliny chameleons neither ate nor drank, but lived on air.
18th century genre scenes might include children out of doors playing with toy windmills, blowing bubbles etc. and many more recent ‘pure’ landscape scenes show wind-blown clouds, grass or trees and real windmills.

Fire, can be personified by a woman with her hair enflamed, or holding a thunderbolt; or with reference to the legendary Phoenix rising from the ashes. In Hecke’s image of this element from his set of the Elements, Orpheus’ visit to the Underworld is unusual iconography for the theme. More conventionally it was Vulcan, blacksmith to the gods, forging Aeneas’ armour who figured.
By extension in modern times the image of any smith, especially when shoeing horses might signify. Domestic firesides; garden bonfires; and accidental disasters might complete the inventory.

Elizabeth Harvey-Lee, Catalogue 55; The Four Elements - Back Cover imageWater conventionally was shown as a River god with spilt urn from which water flows, or as the sea god Neptune and followers, Triton and Nereids, accompanied by dolphins, and a variety of fish and sea creatures, including hippocampi, half horse/half fish.
In genre scenes figures may be angling on a river bank or from a boat, or play by fountains in a garden.
Any marine landscape automatically fits the bill, as any landscape with freshwater lakes, rivers, pond or water in some other form.

Of course, landscape artists of all periods have delighted in expressing the ‘elemental’ qualities of wind and rain, as the beauty of Spring blossom and abundance of Summer harvests.

Published Summer 2014
44 pages, 117 items, 123 illustrations,
10 being in colour.

(U.K. price: £12, International orders £16)

Prints available
Prints from this catalogue are still available and in due course will be featured within the Selections section of the website.

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Artists included in the catalogue:

  • Acroyd N
  • Anderson S
  • Baskett C H
  • Beatrizet N
  • Béjot E
  • Blaker M
  • Blampied E
  • Bonington R P
  • Bracquemond F
  • Briscoe A
  • Burridge F V
  • Butcher E
  • Chahine E
  • David H
  • Delasalle A
  • Desborough C I
  • Detmold C M & E J
  • Dupont P
  • Fergusson C J
  • Ferrier G S
  • Fischer O
  • Frank H
  • Freeth H A
  • Fürstova M
  • Gaillard R
  • Galle T
  • Goff R
  • Graf O
  • Gray J
  • Haig A
  • Hall O
  • Hamson T D
  • Hardie M
  • Hecke A
    (Hecken A van de /or Heckius)
  • Heerschel ?
  • Hirst N
  • Homan R
  • Howarth A
  • Hunnerstone P
  • Isabey E
  • Keene C
  • Komjàti J
  • Laing F
  • Lalanne M
  • Larsson C
  • Legros A
  • Luyken C
  • Manning W W
  • Marples G
  • Mathiesen J G
  • McBey J
  • Michelangelo
  • Millet J F
  • Mole F
  • Muyden E
  • van Nattier J M
  • Neumann H
  • Newton E W
  • Nooms R
  • Odescalchi V
  • Oppenheimer J
  • Passe C
  • de Pennell J
  • Pitfield T B
  • Pott C
  • Pryse G S
  • Rembrandt
  • Renison W
  • Richmond T K
  • Robertson P
  • Robins W P
  • Robinson J C
  • Robinson M C
  • Roman R
  • Rosa S
  • Roussel T
  • Rowlandson T
  • Rushbury H
  • Schaufelein H
  • Segonzac A D
  • de Seguin A
  • Shakra W A
  • Shannon C
  • Smallfield F
  • Smart D I
  • Southall J E
  • Straet J van de
  • Strang I
  • Strang W
  • Taylor C W
  • Unwin F S
  • Velde J van de (II)
  • Vogeler H
  • Ward L M
  • Wicks D V
  • Wilson E
  • Wyllie H
  • Zeeman

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