Artist or maker:
Lancret, Nicolas (b.1690, d.1743)
dated in relation to print of 1732
Place of production:
Paris, France
oil on canvas
Type of object:
Accession number:


Nicolas Lancret made a set of paintings depicting the four elements for one of his most important patrons. The two depicting children playing with air and water are now at Waddesdon (acc. nos 2490.1-2). The other two paintings are now in Madrid and Rome.

The four paintings were made for Henri-Camille Marquis de Béringhen around 1730. In 1732, soon after the paintings were made, they were engraved by N. Tardieu with verses commenting on the subjects. The poem accompanying 'Air' dwelt on the painting's allegorical meaning, with such lines as 'Like our most beautiful projects, light houses of cards, are formed and destroyed faster than lightning'.

Lancret depicts many different ways that children play with air, from the kite flying high, to the card tables that the wind threatens to destroy, and the charming girl blowing on a toy pinwheel in the foreground. Many of these details also relate to imagery to do with the fleeting nature of youth and life generally. The bubbles blown by the children, here for only a moment, are a common image in Vanitas paintings which muse on the brevity of life and the certainty of death. Paintings of the four elements were popular in the Netherlands during the 16th and 17th centuries. Dutch painters often combined natural objects with genre or biblical scenes relating to each element.

Lancret made many chalk studies of children playing, some of which are in Waddesdon's collection. The detail of the girl blowing a pinwheel appears in another painting, 'The Toy Windmill', now in the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh, no. 440. Lancret's paintings of children either emphasise active games like hide-and-seek, or games that need fewer players, as in this painting. These depictions often suggest flirtatious teasing. Lancret's composition was popular and was engraved and copied several times.

The accompanying picture of 'Water' at Waddesdon also focuses on children, whereas those depicting 'Earth' and 'Fire' concentrate on adults. This may explain why Ferdinand de Rothschild decided to take just these two. The painting 'Earth' may have been owned by Alfred de Rothschild (1842-1918), Ferdinand's brother-in-law, who also teamed up with Ferdinand to buy works from the Van Loon collection (acc. nos 2563, 2571). Ferdinand may have been touched by the children representing the brevity of life in this painting: he lost his only child when his young wife died in childbirth in 1866.

After the deaths of Antoine Watteau in 1721 and Claude Gillot in 1722, Lancret inherited their mantle as the foremost painter of scenes of fashionable outside parties known as 'Fête Galantes'. Lancret developed Watteau's subjects by combining the Fête Galante with lively scenes seemingly taken from everyday life that often have an allegorical meaning, as in this work. Similar sets of paintings are in the National Gallery, London. The painting depicting 'Earth' is in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid and the painting of 'Fire' is in the Palazzo Barberini, Rome.

Phillippa Plock, 2011

Physical description

Dimensions (mm):
381 x 315
Signature & date:
not signed or dated
[verso, stretcher, upper left, ink]

[verso, stretcher, upper left, round label, ink]

Tower Room
Lancret (Left)
[verso, lower left, stretcher, ink]

Tower Room
Right of door entering
[verso, frame, lower left, ink]


Acquired by the Marquis Henri-Camille de Béringhen (b.1693, d.1770); sold in the Marquis de Béringhen sale, Paris 2 July 1770, lot 30, with the three other paintings in the set for 956 livres; possibly purchased by the Comte de la Guiche (active Circa 1770); possibly sold in the sale of the Comte de la Guiche, described as the collection of the Marquis de Lassay, Paris, 22 May 1775, lot. 71, with the three other paintings in the set for 801 livres; acquired by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (b.1839, d.1898) before 1884 (when 'Earth' is recorded as belonging to Alfred de Rothschild); inherited by his sister Alice de Rothschild (b.1847, d.1922); inherited by her great-nephew James de Rothschild (b.1878, d.1957); bequeathed to Waddesdon The Rothschild Collection (The National Trust) in 1957.
Waddesdon (National Trust)
Bequest of James de Rothschild, 1957



Georges Wildenstein; Lancret: biographie et catalogue critiques; Paris; Editions des Beaux-Arts; 1924; pp. 69-70, no. 1
Anita Brookner, French Pictures at Waddesdon, The Burlington Magazine, 101, 1959, 271-273; p. 272, fig. 25
Ellis Waterhouse, Anthony Blunt; Paintings: The James A. de Rothschild Collection at Waddesdon Manor; Fribourg; Office du Livre, The National Trust; 1967; p. 252, cat. no. 115, ill.
Jane Turner; Dictionary of Art; 34 vols; London; Grove; 1996; mentions painting in article on Lancret by Mary Taverner Holmes, p. 682
Christopher Wright; The Schorr Collection Catalogue of Old Master and Nineteenth-Century Paintings; 2 vols; London; MGFA; 2014; vol.1, p. 145, fig. 182

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