Giuseppe Arcimboldo,(also spelled Arcimboldi) (1527-1593), an Italian painter during the Renaissance era, who painted in Milan and Prague, was best known for his painted portraits of human heads composed of images of fruits, vegetables, flowers, animals, birds, fish, books and other inanimate objects.
Born in Milan, Italy, in 1527, Giuseppe Arcimboldo began his artistic career by working on stained-glass window designs, including the life stories of Saint Catherine of Alexandria at the Duomo (Cathedral) in Milan.
(Top image) Giuseppe Arcimboldo, self-portrait. (For enlargement, click on images.)
(Right image) Stained-glass window: designs drawn by Biagio Arcimboldo and Giuseppe Arcimboldo, made by Corrado de'Mochis, 1556, Duomo (Cathedral), Milan, Italy. Photo Credit: Giovanni Dali'Orto.
Arcimboldo later moved to Prague which, under Charles V, became for a time the centre of the Holy Roman Empire.
Arcimboldo's most important works were painted in Prague, where he was employed by a series of Hapsburg emperors. Besides his painting, his other duties at the royal court included being the architect/designer of the civic waterworks and other public projects, decorator for festivals and state occasions, curator of the imperial art collection, and court interior designer.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo was way ahead of his time, pre-dating the Surrealists by several hundreds of years. Arcimboldo's richly coloured portrait heads remain a source of admiration and fascination today. Although he painted conventional portraits which have for the most part fallen into oblivion, Arcimboldo's reputation rests on his portrait paintings composed of non-human and inanimate objects. To view these paintings from a distance, the outlines and masses are recognizable as portrait heads . . . but it is by viewing these paintings up-close that we see Arcimboldo's genius, innovation and creative exploration.
Arcimboldo's The Four Elements series of 1566 features four paintings titled The Air, The Earth, The Fire, and The Water.
(Left image) Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Air (Four Elements series), 1566, oil, private collection.
Feathered birds of all sizes--from tiny song birds to parrots to ducks to owls to a rooster to a turkey to pheasants to a peacock and a peahen--are seen here. What other birds can you identify?
(Right image) Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Earth (Four Elements series), 1566, oil, private collection.
In the painting The Earth, notice Arcimboldo's detailed and velvet treatment of the animals' fur coats, the sheep's woolly coat in the foreground and the taut, tough skin of the young elephant's head and trunk, the elephant's ear situated exactly where the human ear would be. See how Arcimboldo has used the animals' natural light and dark fur colouring to convey the facial contours and the decorative features and folds of the person's clothing.
Do you see the monkey, the wild boar, and the head of a horse in this menagerie grouping?
(Left image) Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Fire (Four Elements series), 1566, oil, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
This is The Fire portrait. How cool is this? Look at that "bonfire" on top of the head. It's wild! And he looks like a famous celebrity rocker.....those lips.....the metal hardware and gold.....a "candlestick" eye and it's so TODAY!
What else do you see?
(For enlargement, click on images.)
(Right image) Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Water (Four Elements series), 1566, oil, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Fishes, crustaceans, red coral, hard shells and various aquatic creatures of the sea--including crab, lobster, stingray, starfish, seahorse, a seal and a walrus, a frog, a puffer fish, prawns, octopus or squid--are all in the painting titled The Water.
How about that turtle underneath the string of pearls? And where do pearls come from? And the pearl drop earring dangling from a conch shell with more pearls inside? This is one of several portrait heads where Arcimboldo has painted in an earring.
Also notice that Arcimboldo has used the "curved underside of a fish mouth" to convey human lips in this painting. Are those catfish whiskers on the man's chin? How about that sea snake neck? Also, Arcimboldo has placed on top a beast with horns? And a spiky metal crown for Neptune, Roman God of the Sea? Brilliant!
A process of much thinking has gone into his compositions. As with all of these paintings, the coloured portrait heads are painted and set against a dark background; and you can easily see that the contours of the heads are "human in shape" regardless of the non-human forms and objects making up the heads.
(Left image) Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Portrait of Maximilian II and His Family, c.1553/1554, oil on canvas, Schloss Ambras, Innsbruck, Austria.
A traditional group portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (1527-1576) with his wife Infanta Maria of Spain (1528-1603) and children: Anna (1549-1580) (standing at the front), Rudolf (1552-1612) (at the back) and Ernest (1553-1595) (in the cradle).
(Right image) Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Librarian, c.1570, oil on canvas, Skokloster Castle, Stockholm, Sweden.
While Giuseppe Arcimboldo often used fruits, vegetables, and creatures to compose his portraits, the artist also used pots, pans, workmen's tools, and books to create his unique images.
The Librarian is a half portrait. From the top, we see the perfectly balanced opened pages of "hair" and the sharp bookish nose. Arcimboldo has stacked a pile of books in a pyramid to form the man's chest. Two large book volumes--a red book on the left side is placed at an angle and is resting on a horizontal white book--are painted to form the librarian's arm bent at the elbow, with slips of paper hanging out of the white book to resemble the man's "fingers."
Arcimboldo produced a couple versions of The Four Seasons series as self-portraits titled The Spring, The Summer, The Autumn, and The Winter.
Each of the seasonal paintings has a different "feel" about it. These seasonal paintings may well represent the different stages of Arcimboldo's life. We think of "spring" as new and young growth (youth and inexperienced), "summer" as the steady and luxuriant time of bloom (young adulthood and production), "autumn" as the time of harvest (middle-age and achievements), and "winter" as a resting and dormant stage (old and retirement).
The later Four Seasons series painted in 1573 are located in the Musée du Louvre, Paris. Shown here are two paintings from the early 1563 series at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, as are two from The Louvre's 1573 series. Between the two series, the paintings are very similar; however, the paintings at The Louvre have painted borders of greenery and blooms on the pictures' edges.
(Left image) Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Spring (Four Seasons 1573 series), 1573, oil, Musée du Louvre, Paris.
The Spring portrait is brimming with the luxurious growth of spring's renewal. This version, dated 1573, showed a painted border of foliage and blooms as well. Tiny peach, pink, and white flowers make up the flesh tones on the face. Two rosebuds make up the "lips." Notice that a single "fuchsia" blossom earring dangles from the portrait's deep pink "ear." The ruffled collar is composed entirely of white blossoms. A single blue/purple iris grows from a field (coat) of green foliage.
The Spring self-portrait is youthful and full of vigor.
(Right image) Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Summer (Four Seasons 1563 series), 1563, oil on wood, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
The Summer portrait is made entirely of the fruits and vegetables of summer--pears, peaches, cherries, grapes, corn, wheat or other grains, garlic, melons, eggplant, a cucumber nose and a row of peas in a pod for teeth. With plump rosy "peach cheeks" and smiling "cherry lips" and an "artichoke heart" growing from his chest, this self-portrait showed a happy man, at ease with himself.
Click on the image for the enlargement and you will see the artist's name, "Giuseppe Arcimboldo F" embroidered on the garment collar. The year "1563" is stitched onto the cap of the sleeve.
(Left image) Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Autumn (Four Seasons 1573 series), 1573, oil, Musée du Louvre, Paris.
The Autumn picture is entirely composed of the fall harvest. Juicy grapes, squash, pumpkin, root vegetables, red apple with a worm "cheeks," a pear "nose," a pomegranate "chin," stalks of grain for a beard, and much more.
From a mushroom "ear" dangles a fig earring. An almost invisible snail rests on top of the pumpkin (or giant squash) at the back of the head.
Arcimboldo has used the natural colouring and shapes of the individual fruits and vegetables to form the portrait head. From afar, the face looks like a "human" face.
(Right image) Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Winter (Four Seasons 1563 series), 1563, oil on wood, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
The Winter painting is composed of a old weathered tree stump with its tangle of bare roots covered in green ivy. Hook-shaped and broken branches formed the nose and ear. Pale tree fungi formed the upper and lower lips, with mossy stubble covering the chin.
A branch with two citrus fruits--a yellow lemon and an orange tangerine--along with a woven gold frock coat add some warmth and whimsy to the picture. To me, the portrait conveyed a very old man--well-lived and wise.
(Left image) Portrait of Rudolf II (Holy Roman Emperor) painted as Vertumnus, the Roman God of the Seasons, Change and Plant Growth, c. 1590-1, oil on canvas, Skokloster Castle, Sweden, Stockholm.
Arcimboldo painted the portrait of Rudolf II (Holy Roman Emperor), the son of Maximilian II, during the latter part of his artistic career. All into one picture, Arcimboldo has combined flowers as well as fruits and vegetables. A decorative and colourful "sash" made entirely of flower blossoms is worn by Rudolf II to signify his military medals and honours. Again, Arcimboldo has used the "natural contours" of the non-human objects to create depth, light and shadow.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo died in 1593 at the age 66 in Milan, Italy. From Arcimboldo's early experience in designing "fragmented" stained-glass windows, it probably seemed quite natural to him that his artistic path would lead to the "design and construction" of portraits with individual objects serving as fragment pieces. Arcimboldo was an artist ahead of his time. He left a rich legacy, being re-discovered in the early 20th century by the Surrealists; and Giuseppe Arcimboldo remains much admired today.