Arcimboldo’s Feast for the Eyes

Renaissance artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo painted witty, even surreal portraits composed of fruits, vegetables, fish and trees

A keen observer as well as celebrated wit, Arcimboldo created composite portraits that were both enjoyed as jokes and taken very seriously. (Skokloster Castle, Skokloster)
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Even seemingly pedantic botanical details bear out the theme of empire. Arcimboldo’s composites incorporated exotic specimens, such as corn and eggplant, which sophisticated viewers would recognize as rare cultivars from the New World and beyond, where so many European rulers hoped to extend their influence.

One modern critic has theorized that Arcimboldo suffered from mental illness, but others insist he had to have had his wits about him to win and retain favor in such rarefied circles. Still others have suggested he was a misunderstood man of the people—rather than fawning over the Hapsburgs, he mocked them in plain sight. This seems unlikely, though; scholars now believe that Arcimboldo falsified his ties to a powerful Italian family in an attempt to pass himself off as nobility.

The Kunstkammer was looted during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), and a number of Arcimboldo’s paintings were carried off to Sweden. The composite heads disappeared into private collections, and Arcimboldo would remain rather obscure until the 20th century, when painters from Salvador Dali to Pablo Picasso are said to have rediscovered him. He has been hailed as the grandfather of Surrealism.

His works continue to surface, including Four Seasons in One Head, painted not long before his death in 1593 at 66. The National Gallery acquired the painting from a New York dealer this past fall. It’s the only undisputed Arcimboldo owned by an American museum. Originally a gift to one of Arcimboldo’s Italian friends, Four Seasons may be Arcimboldo’s reflection on his own life. The tree-trunk face is craggy and comical, but a jaunty pair of red cherries dangles from one ear, and the head is heaped with grape leaves and apples—laurels the artist perhaps knew he deserved.

Abigail Tucker is the magazine’s staff writer.


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