Fire, Water, Air, Earth

Nutritional Advice and Social Class in Beuckelaer’s Four Elements

Claudia Goldstein

From 1569-70, the Flemish painter Joachim Beuckelaer painted a series of four large paintings known collectively as the Four Elements. Now at the National Gallery in London, the paintings are of unknown provenance; that is, we do not know who originally owned or commissioned them. What we do know is that this type of subject matter – women and men selling, presenting, and preparing meat, fish, fowl, fruit, and vegetables in close proximity to the viewer  – was new and unusual in the late 1560s, and took hold of the collective imagination in both Antwerp (Beuckelaer’s home city) and Northern Italy, where his works were both popular and influential. In all documented cases, including the Farnese palace in Parma that was home to some of Beuckelaer’s other works, these paintings were displayed in domestic spaces used for festivity, and above all, dining.

The dinner party had become a locus of upper-class social life in the northern metropolis of Antwerp by the late sixteenth century, where paintings by some of the city’s most famous artists were displayed in dining rooms. Given their almost singular focus on food, it is unsurprising that this trend made its way to Northern Italy via Beuckelaer’s works. There, it mingled with Italian modes of entertaining, theatrical performance, and beliefs about food science and proper nutrition.

My talk for the Amsterdam Symposium on the History of Food will center on this last arena: the relationship between Beuckelaer’s Four Elements and Renaissance nutrition. As has been studied by Ken Albala and Allen J. Grieco, among others, by the late sixteenth century the understanding of proper nutrition and the relative benefits of a variety of foods were completely tied up with notions of class. As their market prices rose, fresh meat and whole fowl became the purview of the upper classes only. At the same time, legumes like lentils and beans were increasingly associated with the lower classes. For optimal health, contemporary treatises on food recommended that the type of foods consumed by an individual match their social class.

My talk aims to understand Beuckelaer’s Four Elements in light of their upper-class audience and contemporary, late sixteenth-century understandings of food. By their title and organization, the series appears to align with tenets of Renaissance nutrition. Their likely display in a dining space deliciously complicates the relationship between paintings and audiences, and between food and class, in the last quarter of the century. I do not propose definitive answers, but will raise intriguing questions by examining these paintings in the heady context of Renaissance nutrition and dining.