Jan Brueghel the Younger was born in Antwerp in 1601. At a young age he travelled to Italy, where he worked at the court of the archbishop of Milan, Borromeo, who had also been patron to his father, Jan Brueghel the Elder (the “velvet” Brueghel). In Genoa he worked together with his friend Anthony van Dyck. In 1625 Jan II returned to Antwerp, where he became a member of the guild of St. Luke in the same year and took over the workshop of his recently deceased father. He enjoyed immediate success and cooperated with many of the artists his father had collaborated with: Rubens, Hendrick van Balen, Joos de Momper and many others. Jan II Brueghel could count several of the time’s important power-holders among his clients, such as Leopold Wilhelm, governor of the Netherlands, and the Duke of Savoy. Not only did Jan Brueghel the Younger follow his father thematically, painting flower pieces, landscapes and animals, but also stylistically. Because of this, is is not always easy to distinguish his work from his fathers’.
Frans Francken the Younger was born in Antwerp in 1581. His father, Frans Francken the Elder, was one of the founding fathers of the Francken dynasty of artists, which produced about a dozen painters, including a female artist, Isabella Francken. Frans II, or “the Younger”, was arguably the most talented among them, and definitely the most famous. He undertook several trips to Italy, where he probably first met Rubens. He joined the guild of St. Luke in 1605; in 1614, he became the dean of the guild. He was a member of the Antwerp rhetoric chamber De Violieren, for which he painted – in collaboration with Hendrick van Balen, Jan I Brueghel and Sebastiaen Vrancx – a very fine coat of arms, which is still kept in the Antwerp Royal Museum of Fine Art today. Frans Francken the Younger was a versatile and prolific painter, producing not only – often small-scale – mythological, biblical, historical and allegorical paintings, mostly painted on copper or panel, but also large-scale altar pieces. He was among the first in painting genre pieces with monkeys and was one of the innovators of the genre of the so-called Kunstkamer paintings, depicting artistic and natural treasures in a collector’s gallery. He is also known to have produced small panel paintings as decorations for cabinets, a piece of furniture for which the Antwerp workshops were well-known. Francken often collaborated with other artists, painting the staffage in their landscapes (e.g. with Abraham Govaerts), church interiors (e.g. Pieter Neeffs) or flower still lifes (e.g. Andries Daniels).
In the present painting, Brueghel painted the landscape and Francken the figures. Although collaboration between these two painterly dynasties was quite rare, other examples are known. (Furthermore, Francken also collaborated on some occasions with Jan Brueghel the Elder.) In the middle we see Urania and Vesta. Urania, the muse of astronomy, is holding an astrolabe in her right hand, which she is raising towards the clear blue sky. To her right sits a flock of birds ranging from common to more exotic; yet more birds can be seen in the tree and the sky. To her left is Vesta, goddess of the hearth, who gave her name to the Vestal virgins, the priestesses who kept her fire burning continuously in the temple of Vesta, the remains of which can still be seen at the Forum Romanum in Rome today. In her hands she holds a bundle of flames. Behind her stand overgrown ruins, which are reminiscent of ancient monuments such as the arched corridors of the Colosseum or the vaulted rooms of Roman baths.
To the right, we see the forge of Vulcan, where naked smiths are hammering away at an anvil, while the fire of the smithy blazes. At their feet lie various instruments and materials they needed to ply their craft. In the foreground lies a pile of weaponry, the output of their hard labour: a cannon, a cuirass and helmet, various spears and guns, topped with a beautifully rendered banner in brilliant colours. Behind Vesta a scene from ancient mythology can be made out. As Vulcan had once been thrown of Mount Olympus by his enraged mother Hera, he was deformed. Later, as a punishment, Venus had been forced to marry him, although this did not dissuade her from promptly beginning an affair with Mars, the god of war. The couple can be seen lying in bed. Vulcan, however, had noticed his wife’s infidelity and had crafted an invisible yet unbreakable net, which he is about to cast over the two lovers. Above the scene, various Olympic gods are watching as the scene unfolds, pointing and laughing.
Several versions of Brueghel’s allegories of the elements exist. Most of these however show only one element, in a series of four. The present work shows two elements combined, meaning that there must have been a pendant allegory of earth and water. Although these sets were less common, they are certainly not unheard of. A similar pair, although of lesser quality, can be seen in Potsdam (Germany) for example.
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