28 August 2021

see an amazing Arcimboldo Exhibition in France (till Nov 2021)

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526-93) was born in Milan, son of an artist. Dad worked for Fabbrica Office in the Milan Duomo, that oversaw the devel­op­ment of the city’s cathedral architecture and art.

Some of young Arcim­bol­do’s earliest works were 1549 com­mis­s­ions for st­ained glass windows at the Duomo. In 1556 he worked on Duomo di Monza stained glass windows and fres­coes. In 1558, he drew the cart­oon for a large tapestry of the Dorm­it­ion of the Virgin Mary, in Como Cath­edral.

Earth c1570
Private collection, Vienna
In the early 1560s, Arcimboldo was c36 when he left Italy to be­come a court portraitist to Hapsburg emperors Ferdinand I, Max­imil­ian II in Vien­na & Rudolf II in Prague. In 25 years in Holy Roman Emp­ire courts, he designed stained glass windows, tapest­ries and theatre cost­umes. He main­ly spent time browsing the Hapsburgs’ pri­v­ate collect­ions of artworks and natural objects in Kunstkammer/art chamber.

At first Arcimboldo's conventional work concentrated on traditional re­ligious themes. However The Hapsburgs wanted imaginative works that em­phasised their claims to great­ness and promoted an avant-garde atmosphere in their intellectual courts. So his later, redefined por­t­raits of human heads were made differently. In place of the richly det­ailed facial feat­ures typically found in port­raits, there were clev­er displays of fruits, veget­ables, plants and animals. Both psycholog­ically acute and scient­if­ic­ally accurate, his port­r­aits were celebrated by his patr­ons & cont­emp­or­aries, expanding trad­itional thinking. Although they were greatly adm­ir­ed, art crit­ics debated whether these paintings were from a whimsical or a der­anged mind. Most schol­ars be­lieved that given the Ren­ais­sance fascin­ation of the biz­arre, this Renaissance Italian painter actually cat­er­ed to contemporary taste.

Art his­tor­ian Thomas Kaufmann wrote Arcimb­ol­do: Visual Jokes, Natural History and Still-Life Painting 2009, noting the art con­­veyed the maj­esty of the rulers. The works were meant to amuse, but they also symb­olised the: majesty of the ruler and power of the ruling family. Humour yes, but hum­our resolved seriously. Maxim­il­ian so liked this imag­ery that he and his cour­tiers celebrated in a 1571 festival orchestrated by Arcimboldo.

Maximilian II was fascinated with the natural world, and this interest in biology and other fields lured scientists and phil­os­ophers to his court. No surprise, then, that Ar­cimboldo’s first proj­ects for Maxim­il­ian II the series The Four Seasons, which he start­ed in 1563, and The Elements, com­p­leted in 1566, showed that love of science. Four Sea­sons comprised four profile portraits of figures created from natural mat­er­ials like fruits, veget­ab­les, flowers and plant life specific to summer, aut­umn, winter or spring. The El­ements 1566 (Earth, Water, Fire and Air) featured haunt­ing depict­ions of sea creatures, pearls and birds.

Spring, 1563

The alleg­or­ical paintings were full of visual Haps­burgs puns. The nose and ear of Fire were made of fire strikers, one of the imper­ial fam­il­y’s sym­b­ols. Winter wore a cloak monogrammed with an M for Maxim­il­ian like a garment the emperor did own. Earth had a lion skin a la Hercules, to whom the Hapsb­urgs always tr­aced their lin­eage.

This was the era of botany and zoology, when artists included Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Arcimboldo’s pred­ec­essor in Milan, pursued natur­al stud­ies. Arcimboldo sug­gested a scientific fluency that highlight­ed his patron’s learnedness. Every plant, every flower was recog­nis­able!

Even the botany carried the theme of empire. Arc­im­boldo’s composites in­corporated exotic specimens eg corn and egg­plant, which sophisticated viewers knew were rare cultivars from the New World; where many European rulers hoped to extend their influence!

Arcimboldo’s subjects grow more varied over the years when he created portraits of specific prof­essions and bibl­ical figures while continuing to further his interest in nat­ur­­al phen­omena. Among his most idio­syn­cr­atic paintings are The Librar­ian c1566; The Cook c1570 had a serv­ing dish atop a wooden table that, when turned upside down, revealed a menacing face; and Adam and Eve 1578 showed the faces of a woman and a man composed of group­ings of human bodies. King Aug­ustus of Sax­ony vis­ited Vienna in 1570 and 1573, and saw Arcim­bol­do's work; he quickly com­missioned a copy of Four Seasons with his own monarchic symbols.

The Librar­ian c1566  
Skokloster Castle, Sweden

A renaissance court artist had to produce flattering portraits of his sovereigns, to display at the palace and give to foreign dignit­aries or brides. Arc­im­boldo rem­ain­ed with the Hapsb­urgs till 1587 and continued to paint for them af­ter returning to Milan. It was in this last phase of Arc­im­boldo’s car­eer, 1590, that he pro­duced the composite por­­­t­rait of his royal pat­ron Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II. Arcimboldo chose peapod eyelids and a gourd forehead, looking less royal and more vegetable.

In Milan in 1587, Arcimboldo contin­ued painting met­iculous groupings of lush fruits and vegetables, & dist­in­ctive plants. Four Seasons in One Head c1590, which some art his­torians considered a self-portrait, feat­ured an angular face cut from a withered tree trunk and adorned with a pair of cherries on its ear; apples, grapes, and leaves atop its head; and fl­owers on its bust. Was it an earnest contemplation of mortality? Arcimboldo died in Milan in 1593.


The Kunstkammer was looted late in the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), and some Arcim­boldo’s paintings were carried from Rudolf II's coll­ection to Sweden. A hand­ful of his famous works, incl­ud­ing Vortum­nus c1590 and The Cook, are still part of Swed­ish col­l­ections today. Vortumnus was  the Roman god of the seas­ons. The Prague Picture Gallery has some of his art from Prague Castle. Despite the years damage to the Prague Castle Gallery caused by war and fires, the gallery is very impressive.

Rudolf as Vortum­nus, c1590
Skokloster Castle, Sweden.

The legacy of Arcimboldo’s multiple im­ag­es were only redis­cov­ered in the early C20th by Surrealist art­ists, Arcimboldo art appeared in the works of Pablo Picasso, George Grosz, Rene Magritte and especially Salvador Dalí. The 1987 Arcim­boldo Effect Exhibition at Venice’s Palazzo Grassi high­lighted the meanings of the Grandfather of Surrealism’s art. And Arc­imboldo shows have recently been at the Nat­ional Gal­lery of Art in Washington DC 2010-11; Palazzo Barber­ini in Rome 2017; and now Exhibition Arcimboldo Face to Face, Centre Pompidou-Metz, May-Nov 2021.

Four Seasons in One Head, c1590
National Gallery of Art, U.S.

Photo credits: Art News 


Pipistrello said...

His paintings are so clever and inventive, I'm unsurprised he found such favour through his career. I'd not seen the bookish librarian before - he's a real treat!

LMK said...

Modern art used to be dated to the start of the twentieth century. Now it might mean something else altogether.

Hels said...


if Arcimboldo had never seen these types of portraits before, then he was truly clever and inventive. If there was no role model in his artistic past, where did the ideas come from?

I am still blown away by the originality of the works, produced by this previously ordinary lad from Milan.

Hels said...


if modern art is that art created in more or less the same era as the viewers and critics, then I would largely agree with you.

But if the modern artist dismissed the belief that art must realistically depict the world, then the result will be an experimental use of colour, unusual materials and often new techniques. If the artists are depicting their subjective experiences, realistic art is even less likely.

Luiz Gomes said...

Bom dia. Impossível não se apaixonar por essas pinturas.

Hels said...


sometimes there were amazing artists, architects etc from other eras and other parts of the world about which we know precious little. Even when I first saw Arcimboldo's art years ago, I had little appreciation of his talents.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, The Czech Surrealist animator Jan Svankmajer often animated Arcimboldo-esque figures--they are among his best films. Also, the Brothers Quay (disciples of Svankmajer) also did some great work with Arcimboldo--a great animation based on the Librarian figure is called, naturally enough, The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer.

Hels said...


I would never have found the Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer 1984, if it had not been for you. Many thanks, my friend. Look what the summary said: Arcimboldo, whose paintings and characters were featured heavily in this short; most notably the Librarian and characters from The Seasons, The Elements, and others: Vertumnus, Summer, Fire. In fact, a subtitle in the film is Portrait of Svankmajer a la Arcimboldo!

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, If you love Arcimboldo, also check out Svankmajer's Dimensions of Dialogue and his very short film Flora. You will be amazed. These are from the Master, himself!

Fun60 said...

This is a new artist for me. I am not familiar with his work at all so thank you for this post. His portraits are so different I would have thought of him as a much later artist.

DUTA said...

So, Arcimboldo was the grandfather of surrealism; who was the father?
Well, I'm afraid I don't like his portraits with fruit, veggies, flowers etc..but I think the exhibition of his works in France might be worth a visit.

Pipistrello said...

Jim - thank you for the reference to The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer. The interwebs really are a trove of delights!

Hels said...


The Czechoslovakian Surrealist Group must have known what they were doing. I would normally not watch animated shorts, but Dimensions of Dialogue must have been very clever.

My beloved is Czech, by the way, and is very keen to familiarise himself with Svankmajer.

Hels said...


agreed. For a very long time I assumed the concept of a 16th century Arcimboldo was faked by a
more modern artist. We must have been watching "Fake or Fortune?" too regularly :)

Hels said...


I suggest Andre Breton was the father, when he officially moved away from the Dada movement by establishing Surrealism in 1924. But whether Breton claimed Arcimboldo as his own father..is open to discussion :) I also didn't admire Arcimboldo's work for years, thinking it too playful to be taken seriously.

But expand Earth c1570 (above) and see how clever the component parts are.
And expand Air 1566 (https://www.wikiart.org/en/giuseppe-arcimboldo/air-1566) to see the clever component parts here as well.

Hels said...


I too am always delighted to hear from other bloggers about a topic we are currently discussing or in other peoples' older blogs that focused on themes I have loved for years. This morning, for example, somebody out of the blue provided new information about the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago!! I will follow it up straight away.

Rachel Phillips said...

Thank you for this Hels. I am blown away. I have now been reading about the exhibition because of your post and see that it looks very exciting and I wish I could go. Maybe, you never know, I might. Many artists are involved and one of my favourite artists, Annette Messager, has prepared a special piece of work for the show. Thank you again, I found this post so interesting. It is like Arcimboldo was a rock star and Maximilian II way ahead of his time along with him. Thank you.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Hels - I'd love to get over to Paris to see this ... his works are extraordinary ... while the other links you've given us I'd love to explore sometime ... his art certainly fires my imagination. Lovely to see = thank you ... cheers Hilary

Hels said...


the week we got married, Joe and I packed our back packs and passports, and moved away for 5 years. There were many wonderful things about living in Europe and Britain, but my very favourite was ready access to museums and galleries in general, and specialist exhibitions in particular. Even if our nation wasn't in lockdown because of Covid, I would still envy your ability to pick up over a weekend to see Arcimboldo in Metz or anything that tickles your fancy.

Hels said...


Yes... you must... tell me which are the best Arcimboldos you see!

Although I am not 100% happy with uni lectures on Zoom, I am totally grateful to Zoom for my access to specialist art collections. Until Zoom was invented, my best connection to overseas exhibitions was via books and catalogues on paper, or later on line.

mem said...

I have seen these around but knew nothing about them . I had assumed they were quite contemporary . I wonder if he was trying to portray us as part of nature a distinct from dominating nature as would have been the paradigm then and now? Also maybe a depiction of the idea the "we are what we eat" :) . They are remarkable pictures and seems extraordinarily sane from my point of view.

Hels said...


My best guess is that Arcimboldo found his Habsburg patron was fascinated in the study of botany and zoology, as a result of the voyages of exploration and discovery that were sent to other continents then. When explorers returned with exotica, Maximilian made his court into a scientific study centre. His fruit/vegetable gardens, and zoos with large African animals, were hot! And as royal painter, Arcimboldo had ready access to these vast collections.