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Louis Finson

The Four Elements


oil on canvas

179.1 x 168.9 cm


oil on canvas

179.1 x 168.9 cm

The Four Elements is a painting by Louis Finson, a 17th century Flemish Baroque painter, collector and art dealer of Caravaggio, acquired through Nicholas Hall by the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Signature and inscriptions

Signed and dated lower right:[LVDO]VICVS. FINSONIVS. FECIT. NAPOLI. Ao 1611


Estate Louis Finson, September 1617

Sale of painter and art dealer Abraham Vinck, Amsterdam, circa late 1617

Acquired by jeweler and art dealer Hans le Thoor

Offered to Christian IV, King of Denmark, Copenhagen by painter and art dealer Pieter Isaacksz (negotiations continued until 1624 and finally collapsed) before returned to

Hans le Thoor, until about 1627

Rombout family, Ghent, until circa 1993

Sotheby’s, Amsterdam, 10 May 2005, lot 92

Acquired from the above sale by Rob Smeets, Milan, and Robert Noortman, Maastricht

Acquired from the above by Otto Naumann, New York

Private collection, by 2009

Nicholas Hall, 2018

Purchased from the above by Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, 2018


Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, October 2008 – October 2009

Bard, Forte di Bard, Terra, 18 March – 31 August 2008

Venice, Fortuny Museum, Artempo, Where Time Becomes Art, 9 June 2007 – 5 November 2007

Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Caravaggio and the North, 14 June – 18 September 2016

New York, David Zwirner, Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art (organized in collaboration with Nicholas Hall), September 12 – October 27, 2018


P.A. Leupe, ‘Schilderijen den Koning van Denemarken te koop aangeboden, 1618,’ in F.D.O. Obreen, Archief voor Nederlandsche Kunstgeschiedenis, vol. II, Rotterdam, 1879-80, pp. 135-137.

Didier Bodart, Louis Finson (Bruges, avant 1580-Amsterdam 1617), Brussels, 1970, page 154, no. 34.

Andor Pigler, Barockthemen, eine Auswahl von Verzeichnissen zur Ikonographie des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts, Budapest, 1974, vol. II, page 509.

John Michael Montias, Art at Auction in the 17th Century Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press, 2002, pp. 144-147.

S. A. C. Dudok van Heel, De jonge Rembrandt onder tijgenoten. Godsdienst en schilderkunst in Leiden en Amsterdam, Rotterdam, 2006, pp. 80, 84, no. 42.

Roberto Contini, ‘Studia il mio Pensier (Finson e un Disegno)’, in Jahrbuch der Berliner Museen, 48. Bd.,2006.

Clovis Whitfield, ‘Caravaggio’s Shepherd Corydon,’ in Paragone, 73, May 2007, reproduced no. 36.

Dawn Ades, Olivier Berggruen, J. Patrice Marandel, and Nicholas Hall, Endless Enigma: Eight Centuries of Fantastic Art, New York, 2018

The Four Elements by Louis Finson on view at David Zwirner, New York 2018 © Nicholas Hall and David Zwirner

This early seventeenth century oil on canvas work by painter Louis Finson immediately confronts the viewer with an array of confounding and emotionally-charged figures in a mesmerizing whirl of motion. Together, the four embattled characters present the tense balance of the elements of earth, air, fire and water after which the painting is named. In Finson’s allegory, the elements are depicted as variously male and female, all entangled within a fierce struggle, and with little external referents save for the subtle ribbons of fire, water, earth and wind. More conventional personifications of the Elements were depicted as four females distinguished only by their attributes, often plants and animals relevant to their respective qualities.

Here, Fire (upper right) is depicted as a strong, young man surrounded by flames. He is in a firm grip with the old male figure of Water (lower left) while holding Air (upper left) down. Air, a woman seemingly floating through space, is pushed up in the plane by Water. She grabs Fire by his hair and at the same time holds him back with her right leg. Water, a bearded and older but equally strong man is seated with his knees up and surrounded by small waves. He tries to push the element of Earth (lower right) away with his feet. Earth is depicted as an older lady lying on her back against the ground, grabbing the chest of Water. She is surrounded by brown earth and tries to grip Fire by his left leg, who carefully steps over her.

The present picture is an important landmark in the artist’s development, and a key work in our understanding of his artistic personality in this period. Made in April 1611, The Four Elements dates from Finson’s Neapolitan period and clearly shows in its dramatic lighting and obscured background the dominant influence of Caravaggio, although Finson has not entirely abandoned the etiolated figural style of Giuseppe Cesari, called Cavaliere D’Arpino (1568-1640), whose influence can be noted in Finson’s other works from this period (such as the Annunciation at the Museo di Capodimonte, Naples).

Born in Bruges before March 1580 into a family of painters, Finson was first apprenticed to his father, a decorative painter in Bruges, until around 1600 when he went Italy and settled in Rome. From perhaps 1606, and certainly by 1608, until 1612, Finson was in Naples where he deepened his acquaintance with the work of Caravaggio (1571- 1610) which he first encountered in Rome. Finson may possibly have been a pupil of Caravaggio, but certainly made copies after the master’s work and is known to have owned at least two of his paintings, including the Madonna of the Rosary (now at Vienna) which he bought with Abraham Vinck, perhaps as early as 1607.

This specific work may very well be the Finson offered for sale by the Amsterdam dealer Jean Letoir to the King of Denmark through his Court Painter Pieter Isaacsz. (1569-1625) in 1621. Although the purchase seems to have been made, it was tied to the acquisition of a second Finson, a Massacre of the Innocents, and it was not until 1624 that the deal was apparently concluded, unsold, although it is not known if the paintings ever went to Denmark. In 2018, The Four Elements was acquired though Nicholas Hall in 2018 by the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation and displayed at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. ❖

Updated in 2020
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