September 11, 2022

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526 – 1593)

Created innovative portraits with exaggerated character traits, using optical illusions that pushed the witty and playfulness of his subjects. His work also reveals an artist's mind, increasingly interested in nature and deeply influenced by his own time, the Age of Exploration. Exotic specimens collected from the New World were meticulously drawn and documented by artists, which would eventually become the disciplines of botany and zoology.

Arcimboldo, Giuseppe. Winter. c. 1563. Oil on limewood. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Vienna.

"Nature and Fantasy," an exhibition of Arcimboldo's work, was shown from Sep. 19, 2010 - Jan. 9, 2011, and included 16 paintings of fantastic heads on loan from the Musée du Louvre, Paris, the Kunsthistorishes Museum, Vienna, and other private collections. It was the first time his works had been shown in the United States. A 15-foot-tall fiberglass sculpture by American artist Philip Haas, inspired by Arcimboldo's painting Winter, also was on view on the East Building Mezzanine of the National Gallery of Art in association with the exhibit to celebrate the artist's unique portraits. Following the exhibition in Washington, the fiberglass sculpture traveled to the gardens of Versailles, the Palazzo Reale in Milan, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. In contrast, Arcimboldo's oil paintings were relatively small, which would have made these details even more challenging.

Haas, Phillip. Inspired by Winter. c. 2010. fiberglass sculpture, 15' tall. National Gallery of Art.

Arcimboldo was born in Milan as the son of Biagio, a painter who worked for the office of the Fabbrica in the Duomo. Early on, he enjoyed a conventional artistic career, working alongside his father at the Milan Cathedral and learning his trade. He was commissioned and provided designs for stained-glass window stories of St. Catherine of Alexandria vitrage at the Duomo. He later worked in other cathedrals at Monza and Como.

Arcimboldo, Giuseppe. Summer. c. 1563. Oil on limewood. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Vienna.

With some unexpected luck, Arcimboldo's work came to the attention of Maximilian the second, who happened to be the Holy Roman Emperor. Maximilian II invited him into his Vienna cour,t and in 1562, he became the court portraitist. Here, he painted the first of his famous vegetable portraits, called Spring, a clever arrangement of fruit, flowers, and vegetables that forms the likeness of a handsome noble at first glance or from far away.

Arcimboldo, Giuseppe. Spring. c. 1563. Oil on canvas. 26 x 19.50 in. Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid, Spain.

Many of his portraits are whimsical with fantastic wit but also produce a visual representation and narrative. His work became immensely popular with the Holy Roman Emperor and his successors. His results were so popular in the court that he painted several versions of the same one to supply the enormous demand for them during this time. Even after Arcimboldo returned to Milan to retire, he continued to receive recognition and was honored to accept the patronage of Rudolf II, who was the son of Maximilian II.

Arcimboldo, Giuseppe. The Gardener. c. 1598 - 1590. Oil on panel. Museo Civico Ala Ponzone, Cremona.

His portraits were dictated by his subjects but were built with fruits, flowers, vegetables, books, fish, or other objects. Some still life paintings, when turned upside down reveal a portraits. His work also may have had hidden meanings with underlying moral, political, or symbolic significance that would have been well understood by the contemporary viewers of his time.

(Arcimboldo, Giuseppe. Water. c. 1566. Oil on limewood. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Gemäldegalerie, Vienna.

Arcimboldo's portraits were mainly produced for the court and its settings but reveal his unique skill in designing and manipulating the compositional elements and characterized by Mannerism, an artistic movement manifested in the late renaissance, prioritizing ornate aesthetics or self-expression over pursuing idealism.When his eccentric "vegetable" portraits were rediscovered in the 20th century by the Surrealists, his work enjoyed a resurgence of popularity and remains a fascination today.

Reference: National Gallery of Art. "Arcimboldo: Nature and Fantasy," Washington D.C. published by the National Gallery of Art, 2010.