An Italian Renaissance painter, Giuseppe Arcimboldo is known for his intricate still life paintings which combined inanimate or found objects into kaleidoscopic “composite heads”. A 16th-century Mannerist, he tended to show close relationships between human and nature, but also his own appreciation of nature. Among all Giuseppe Arcimboldo paintings, his Surrealist portraits of human heads made up of vegetables, fruit, flowers and tree roots were particularly admired by his contemporaries and remain a source of fascination throughout history.
Born into a family of painters in Milan, Giuseppe Arcimboldo left Italy at the age of 36 to work in the imperial courts of the Habsburg rulers, first for Maximilian II in Vienna and then for Rudolf II in Prague. Arcimboldo served as court painter for twenty-five years, creating numerous portraits of the imperial family.
However, the Italian Renaissance artist remains best known for the highly original portraits of composite heads composed by imaginatively arranging objects, plants, animals, and other elements of nature, filling the paintings with dense details that come together harmoniously to create a human form. In addition to composite portraits of Habsburg rulers, Arcimboldo also made witty composite portraits of different professions, such as a librarian, jurist, cook, and vegetable gardener, using objects associated with each occupation.
The artworks of Giuseppe Arcimboldo can be found on view in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Habsburg Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck; the Louvre in Paris; Denver Art Museum in Denver, as well as in numerous museums in Italy and Sweden.
Let's take a look at some of the most notable Giuseppe Arcimboldo paintings!
Featured image: Giuseppe Arcimboldo - The Jurist (detail), 1566. All images Creative Commons.
A portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, the painting Vertumnus from 1591 is certainly Arcimboldo's most famous painting. Reimagining the Emperor as Vertumnus, the Roman god of metamorphoses in nature and life, the artist composed his portrait of an assortment of fruits and vegetables such as gourds, pears, apples, artichokes, beans, grapes, etc.
Reflecting the Renaissance mind's fascination with riddles, puzzles, and the bizarre, Giuseppe Arcimboldo portraits were composed of objects that were related to the person he was painting. Composed of fruits and vegetables from all seasons, as well as flowers, this unusual, intricate portrait symbolizes the abundance of the Golden Age that has returned under the Emperor's rule, as well as the perfect balance and harmony with nature that his reign represented. Since Rudolf II was not a particularly popular ruler, it is believed that Arcimboldo created this flattery depiction since the Emperor was a patron and collector of the arts.
Featured image: Giuseppe Archimboldo - Vertumnus, 1591. Oil on canvas, 700 x 580 mm. Collection of Skokloster Castle, Sweden. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
An oil painting created in 1956, The Librarian is thought to be a portrait of Wolfgang Lazius, a humanist and historian who served Holy Roman Emperors of the House of Habsburg. This was first suggested in 1957 by the art historian Sven Alfons. One of a series of paintings by Arcimboldo of members of Maximilian II's entourage, it has been described by the Austrian art historian Benno Geiger as a "triumph of abstract art in the 16th century."
In this Surrealist portrait, Arcimboldo used objects that signified the book culture at that time. Animal tails, which became the beard of the portrait, were used as dusters. While some interpreted the work as a celebration of librarians and scholarship, others saw it as a satirical mocking, including K. C. Elhard who described it as a parody of "materialistic book collectors more interested in acquiring books than in reading them." He also stated that the artwork has become "a fixture in the visual history of the library profession."
Featured image: Giuseppe Arcimboldo - The Librarian, 1566. Oil on canvas, 710 x 760 mm. Collection of Skokloster Castle, Sweden. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Also known as The Lawyer, the painting The Jurist from 1566 shows a member of the legal profession with facial features composed of the plucked carcasses of poultry and fish, and a body composed of legal documents. There are two versions of the painting - the one held by the National Museum of Fine Arts in Sweden and other held by a private collector in Milan.
The work was created while Arcimboldo was working as a court painter to Maximilian II and it is unknown whether the work represents a legal profession in general or was based on a real jurist of the time. Some art scholars suggested that the subject might be the German jurist Ulrich Zasius, while others suggest it might be the vice-chancellor of Maximilian II, who was disfigured by an accident and, in addition, had a congenital swelling on one cheek.
Featured image: Giuseppe Arcimboldo - The Jurist, 1566. Oil on canvas, 64 x 51 cm. Nationalmuseum, Stockholm. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
First presented publicly in the Arcimboldo retrospective held in Paris and Vienna in 2007, Four Seasons in One Head has been described by the American author Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann as "one of the most startling discoveries of works by Arcimboldo in recent years."
The portrait is composed of a very knotty trunk, moss, twigs, flowers and fruit, the same or similar nature motifs in Arcimboldo's other works. The composition features the more engaging three-quarter view and the mood of the piece is darker and more somber compared to other works by the artist. One of his last works, the piece is either a self-portrait of the artist in the "winter" of his life or a summa of his career.
The work was painted for Don Gregorio Comanini, a Mantuan man of letters. In his dialogue Il Figino, published in 1591, he advises the Milanese artist Ambrogio Figino to have "Comanini show you Arcimboldo's playful treatment of the Four Seasons; you will see a lovely work," assuring him that "the work will please you wonderfully."
Featured image: Giuseppe Arcimboldo - Four Seasons in One Head, c. 1590. Paul Mellon Fund. Image via National Gallery of Art.
Painted while Arcimboldo was working as a court painter for Maximilian II, this portrait features the Emperor with his consort, Maria of Spain, their eldest daughter Anna, and sons Rudolf and Ernst. Their clothing reflects the Spanish fashions at mid-century: the Emperor wears doublet and shoes with long vents and short trousers which, while the Queen and Archduchess Anna wear a form of skirt that is already stiff but not yet very wide.
Featured image: Giuseppe Arcimboldo - Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II of Austria and his wife Infanta Maria of Spain with their children, ca. 1563. Oil on canvas, 240 x 188 cm. Ambras Castle. Image via Wikimedia Commons.