Finding Science in the Art of Arcimboldo

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On a recent trip to the National Gallery of Art, I stopped in to see the Arcimboldo exhibit, which we feature in the magazine this month. When I saw the images in print, I had been fascinated by their weirdness—the artist made faces and heads out of compilations of images of fruit, flowers, books or other items on some theme. The paintings seemed out of place, too surreal for an artist to have created in the late 1500s. But when I saw the exhibit I realized that Arcimboldo was really something of a scientist during a time when studying flora and fauna often meant illustrating them. Arcimboldo's works include numerous studies (drawings) of plants, animals and birds. And these studies made it possible for Arcimboldo to later create his fantastic faces.

Arcimboldo was the court painter for the Holy Roman Emperors Maximilian II and Rudolph II. Maximilian's court was full of artists and scientists, and he established zoological and botanical gardens full of rare plants and animals, including elephants and tigers. Arcimboldo was just one of many artists who studied and painted these creatures, though he was likely the only one to think of making portraits using them. Rudolph followed in his father's footsteps—he was a patron to the astronomers Tycho de Brahe and Kepler, for example—and was even more of an eccentric. He had Europe's most extensive "cabinet of curiosities," full of oddities such as stuffed birds, precious stones and mummies, and it was so large he had an entire wing built to house it. Arcimboldo and his odd paintings, no doubt, fit right in.

While walking through the National Gallery's exhibit, I found the image above, Water, from Arcimboldo's Four Elements series, to be the most striking, perhaps because it was the one in which I could identify the most items. (I'm probably not alone; the National Gallery has a key to only that painting on the wall just outside the exhibit.) Turtle, crab, lobster (strangely, a cooked one), ray, prawn, coral, octopus, whale, seal, walrus, sea horse, plenty of fish. I may not have been able to identify the species, but it was all familiar. Though I was probably missing any social commentary or court drama that the artist had intended to convey with his imagery, I was having plenty of fun staring at it like a version of a giant word search, only looking for sea creatures instead.

If you're in the Washington, D.C. area, there's still a little time to catch the exhibit before it closes on Sunday, after which it moves to the Palazzo Reale in Milan, Italy. If you can't make it, check out the magazine's video tour.

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