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Adriaen Collaert

(circa 1560–1618, Antwerp)

The Four Elements. Set of four engravings after Maarten de Vos. Each approx. 18.6 x 23.5 cm. Circa 1582. Diels/Leesberg (New Hollstein, Collaert Dynasty) 1286–1289, I (of III) respectively. Watermark: Gothic P.

Adriaen Collaert, who was trained and worked in Philipp Galle’s studio from 1580 to 1593, emulated his teacher in becoming one of the most prolific engravers and publishers of his time. His oeuvre is now thought to encompass some six hundred prints. Collaert set up his own publishing house in 1593. It was in the early stages of his cooperation with Galle that he produced the present set of engravings entitled The Four Elements after preliminary drawings by Maarten de Vos, which is on offer here in full in the first edition published by Gerard de Jode.

To depict the elements de Vos chose four personifications with the relevant attributes and accompanying symbolic animals. In doing so he employed highly complex imagery of the kind customary at the time, which can be seen as an outstanding reflection of humanist scholarship. Earth (Terra) is represented by the goddess Cybele. Flanked by death, personified by a prostrate skeleton, and life in the shape of a young boy, she sits enthroned against the backdrop of a landscape populated by various exotic animals. For the depiction of Water (Acqua), which made great demands on his skill as an artist, de Vos chose not Neptune, as might have been expected, but rather a river goddess sat on a shell-like formation holding a ship in one hand and a compass in the other, around whom various types of fish and bizarre sea creatures and monsters from the deep frolic and play. While the presence of the chameleon as a symbol of Air (Aer) might appear out of place at first glance, it can be attributed to the notion formulated by Cesare Ripa in his Iconologia that the chameleon lives on air alone – a mistaken belief which can be explained by the fact that this exotic animal can survive for prolonged periods without eating any food. Finally, Fire (Ignis) shows the sun god Helios surrounded by an aureole of flames and accompanied by a lizard and a phoenix.

Adriaen Collaert’s transfer to the print medium of Vos’s creations is effected in a refined, technically sophisticated engraving style which is artistically on a par with the preliminary drawings, several of which have survived. Very fine, early impressions, before numbers and the titles at the top, each with wide or full margins. Minimal traces of handling in the margins, otherwise in pristine condition.

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