The Vegetable Gardener, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, circa 1587
Think about it – you’re sitting in your kitchen, and you say to yourself, “Now that’s a beautiful basket of fruit – I’m going to paint that!”. You might find that the way the sun is reflecting through a window is casting an interesting glow on the apples that you try to capture. Or you’re struck by the subtle shading of apricots and plums. And if you’re an artist like Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Edouard Manet, or Claude Monet, it’s going result in a typically beautiful painting, but still easily identifiable as a basket of fruit. But if you’re name is Giuseppe Arcimboldo, your wild imagination results in an entirely different result. When Giuseppe looked at vegetables, fruit or flowers, he didn’t see vegetables or fruit or flowers sitting in a basket or in a vase. He saw these things incorporated into other ordinary objects, like people. His paintings cause you to look twice – or more, and make you really study the painting, to convince yourself that yes, that’s what you’re seeing. They’re surreal!
Self Portrait by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, circa 1570
Some people describe his work as inspired and inventful while other consider the works grotesque. Regardless, Arcimboldo truly did pave the way for surrealistic painters such as Salvador Dali, René Magritte and Pablo Picasso.
Let’s start by showing you exactly what we’re talking about. Look at the picture on the left below: It’s pretty obviously intended to be the face of a person wearing a woven hat. But the facial features are made entirely of fruit. On the right, a relatively normal basket of fruit. But they are the same painting, just flipped upside down. Pretty bizarre, right?
Reversible Head with Basket of Fruit by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, circa 1590
Reversible Basket of Fruit by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, circa 1590
Giuseppe was born in 1527 and is classified as an Italian Renaissance painter. He was a conventional court painter of portraits for three Holy Roman emperors in Vienna and Prague. As expected of an artist of his era he produced religious work, and among other things, a series of colored drawings of exotic animals in the imperial menagerie.
With the possible exception of Hyeronimus Bosch, Arcimboldo is considered to be the most original of all Renaissance painters, a genius who, with his astonishing portraits, formed by elements such as fruits, animals or objects, seems to anticipate several 20th century avant-gardes such as surrealism.
Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II. of Austria and his wife Infanta Maria of Spain with their children by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, circa 1563
At the age of 22, Arcimboldo joined his father, also an artist, in designing and creating stained glass works. From there he received commissions to paint frescoes and design tapestries for Cathedrals in Spain. In 1562, he became the court painter to Ferdinand I of Vienna, and later for Maximilien II and his son Rudolph II of Prague. At this time, he was also employed as the court decorator and costume designer. Though royal portraits of the time were intended to idealize their subjects, the Habsburgs adored Arcimboldo's inventive renderings. Their court was known for welcoming intellectuals and encouraging avant-garde art. Arcimboldo happily worked for the family for more than 25 years and would continue to accept commissions even after moving back to his homeland in Milan.
At the time that Arcimboldo was painting his nature inspired portraits the studies of botany and zoology, were in their infancy. Artists including Leonardo da Vinci, who was a predecessor of Arcimboldo in Milan, created paintings centered around natural studies. Arcimboldo’s composite paintings show a scientific knowledge and respect. Each item in the composite portraits each plant, grass blade, every flower is clearly recognized. Arcimboldo’s works may be playful, but he and his contemporaries were fascinated by the beauty found in the natural world. His dedicated depiction of flora and fauna down to the finest details.
THE FOUR SEASONS
Arcimboldo painted numerous paintings about "The four seasons." He represented the hypothetical faces of every season with the most typical element of any of them. The allegorical paintings are peppered with visual puns (Summer’s Ear is an ear of corn) as well as references to the Hapsburgs. Earth features a lion skin, a reference to the mythological Hercules, to whom the Hapsburgs were at pains to trace their lineage. Many of the figures are crowned with tree branches, coral fragments or stag’s antlers.
The face of Spring is made of flowers, the Summer has a face of fruits and a body of wheat, while the Autumn is a curious summary of fallen leaves, fruits and mushrooms. The series ends with the Winter, arguably the most complex portrait of the entire series, in which we can find elements as "cold" and "dry" as the bark that forms the face, and others so "live" and "warm" as the leaves of the hair and the two fruits hanging on the neck. Perhaps the optimistic Arcimboldo was unable to depict the winter as a "cold" season, so he added these "kind" elements to the typical cold elements of the winter. Winter wears a cloak monogrammed with an “M,” presumably for Maximilian, that resembles a garment the emperor actually owned.
La Primavera (Spring) by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, circa 1563
Summer by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, circa 1563
THE FOUR ELEMENTS
Another of his famous series of paintings included Earth, Water, Fire and Air—The Four Elements. Arcimboldo assigned to any element a face formed by the most characteristic of each of them. Nevertheless, the series possesses some elements that make it quite different, and even more interesting, than the previous one. Every face is formed by only one kind of element. The face of "The Earth" is formed exclusively by land animals, "The Air" is made of birds, and "The Water" by fish and marine animals. A special case is "The Fire” represented by several blazing elements, from the embers that form the hair to the two cannons in his chest. The nose and ear of Fire are made of fire strikers, one of the imperial family’s symbols. These paintings are more visually rich than the works from the previous series.
Air by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, circa 1566
Fire by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, circa 1566
In addition to the Seasons and the Elements, Arcimboldo also painted some famous individual portraits: for example, Flora, The Waiter, The Jurist, The Librarian and Vertumnus.
The Jurist by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, circa 1566
The Librarian by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, circa 1566
The Waiter by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, circa 1574
Giuseppe Arcimboldo died at the age of 66 on the 11th of July, 1593 in Milan.
Today his work can be seen in several different museums and galleries, including: The Louvre in Paris, Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the Denver Art Museum in Denver, Colorado.
Artists like Salvador Dali have cited the groundbreaking painter's composite heads as a major source of inspiration. But it was Museum of Modern Art director Alfred H. Barr's inclusion of his works in the 1930s exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism that re-introduced the world to Arcimboldo's originality and influence. Retroactively, art historians dubbed the Renaissance Mannerist the grandfather of Surrealism.
FLORA by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, circa 1589
Vertumnus, a portrait depicting Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor painted as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, circa 1590–91
Arcimboldo’s works once again enjoys widespread acclaim. Vertumnus is on display in Sweden's Skokloster Castle along with The Librarian. Spring belongs to Madrid's Museo de la Real Academia de San Fernando, while the Louvre in Paris displays Autumn and Winter. Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna boasts Summer, Fire and Water. Italy's Museo Civico holds The Vegetable Bowl (also known as The Gardener), and Four Seasons in One Head calls the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. home. Spring belongs to Madrid's Museo de la Real Academia de San Fernando, while the Louvre in Paris displays Autumn and Winter. Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna boasts Summer, Fire and Water. Italy's Museo Civico holds The Vegetable Bowl (also known as The Gardener), and Four Seasons in One Head calls the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. home.