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The Art Story Homepage Artists Giuseppe Arcimboldo Art Works

Giuseppe Arcimboldo Artworks

Italian Painter

Giuseppe Arcimboldo Photo
Movement: Mannerism

Born: c.1527 - Milan

Died: July 11, 1593 - Milan

Artworks by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

The below artworks are the most important by Giuseppe Arcimboldo - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Maximilian II, His Wife, and Three Children (1563)

Maximilian II, His Wife, and Three Children (1563)

Shortly after his appointment to the Habsburg court, Arcimboldo painted the unexceptional (in that the subject matter and style conformed to all the usual conventions associated with royal portraiture) Maximilian II, His Wife, and Three Children. However, Maximilian II is an important work in his oeuvre because it serves to illustrate an intermediate phase in the artist's move towards the full Mannerist style which came to stunning fruition only a year later through his commencement of his famous Four Seasons portraits. Indeed, the Four Seasons gave an indication of the wit and inventiveness for which Arcimboldo is much better known. The evolution of his unique style still remains difficult to trace, however, owing to the fact that so much of Arcimboldo's "conventional" work has been lost. Nevertheless, it is clear to see that his use of fruits, vegetables, animals and plants refer further back to his youthful nature studies. One might also find "Arcimboldesque" montage qualities in the artist's aforementioned stained glass works (little of which survives).

Four Seasons (1563-73)

Four Seasons (1563-73)

Four Seasons is a series of four paintings, for which Arcimboldo is still perhaps best known. The series can be seen as the epitome of the Mannerist trait which emphasises the close relationship between mankind and nature. Each portrait represents one of the seasons and is made up of objects that characterise that particular time of year. Spring is a smiling young woman, whose face comprises pink and white blossom skin with a lily-bud nose and the ear of a tulip. Her hair is made up of colorful flowers while her dress is made of green plants and a white floral ruff. Summer is made up of seasonal fruit and vegetables, whose bright colors stand out against the dark background, Summer's smiling face reassures the viewer of the warm benevolence of the sunshine season. Autumn shows a man whose body is a broken barrel and whose face comprises a pear (nose), apple (cheek), pomegranate (chin) and mushroom (ear), all ripe to bursting. Autumn demonstrates the fertility of the seasons and, in his protruding tongue, the artist's anticipation for these ripened fruits. Winter is an old man wrapped in a straw mat. He is made up of an aged tree stump, with pieces of broken-off branch and scratched bark for his features, and a swollen mushroom for a mouth.

Whilst only Winter and Summer survive from the original series of Four Seasons paintings, Arcimboldo's patron, the Emperor Maximilian II, liked them so much that he commissioned a second set in 1573 as a gift for Augustus, the Elector of Saxony (it is the second set that remains intact). As a further expression of his appreciation, the Emperor participated in a festival in 1571, directed by Arcimboldo, in which he and other members of his court dressed up as the elements of seasons.

Additionally, the four portraits in Arcimboldo's later series Four Elements (1566) - Air, Fire, Earth and Water - correspond with spring, summer, autumn and winter respectively. The overall effect of the two series is to suggest thus that the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (who commissioned both sets of paintings) influences everything on the earth down to its most primal forces. By combining objects and creatures into faces, moreover, Arcimboldo transforms chaos into harmony, which could also be seen as a reflection on the Holy powers of the Emperor. As art historian Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann confirms: the paintings were intended to be humorous, but "the humor resolves itself in a serious way," probably as a comment on the majesty of the ruler.

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The Librarian (1566)

The Librarian (1566)

Though Arcimboldo is best known for his portraits made up of flowers, vegetables and fruits, the artist also made several portraits made of other assembled objects with relevance to the sitter. For example The Waiter (1574) depicts a server made up of crockery, whilst this portrait, The Librarian, is made up of objects that were associated with libraries. These include books (comprising the body, head and hair), study room curtains (the clothing) and animal-tail dusters (the beard).

Perhaps owing to the nature of the subject matter, the overall impression of the figure is quite disjointed in comparison to previous portraits. The hard edges of the books disrupt the overall impression of a portrait and render the subject robotic in appearance. It is possible that this lack of humanity is a contributing factor to the controversy surrounding this portrait, arising from the suggestion that Arcimboldo intended this portrait to mock scholars and the wealthy elite.

Since books were available only to the very rich, many owners collected them as status symbols whilst being unable to read the contents of their collections. The subject of this portrait is made up of books yet brings no additional contribution or personal characteristics to the table. Unlike Arcimboldo's portrait The Jurist of the same year, the subject of the portrait has not been identified. This might also suggest that Arcimboldo had in mind a group or class of people as opposed to an individual.

The Jurist (1566)

The Jurist (1566)

The Jurist is a disturbing portrait of a member of the legal profession. His head is made up of poultry and fish and his body of legal documents. Whereas in previous portraits (such as Four Elements) Arcimboldo has chosen the collaged elements to represent the nobility and benevolence of his patrons, this portrait is intended to discredit and defame. The use of meat and poultry to make up the lawyer's face illustrates the artist's attitude towards his subject. The expression on the lawyer's face is sneering and his very person is made up of what is thought to be rotting flesh. Particularly distasteful are his fish-bone moustache, fish tail beard and decapitated frog nose.

It is not known with any certainty whether the sitter is a particular lawyer or if The Jurist is a caricature of the legal profession in general. According to the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, however, the painting shows the German jurist Ulrich Zasius, vice-chancellor of Maximilian II. If the portrait does indeed show Zasius, then the poor light in which he has been painted could be a reflection of his reputation for dishonesty in his service to the Emperor - the first intended viewer of this portrait. It is also possible that Arcimboldo's portrait mocks Zasius's disfigurement, which he is thought to have contracted as a result of a sexually transmitted disease.

Vegetables In A Bowl Or The Gardener (1587-90)

Vegetables In A Bowl Or The Gardener (1587-90)

This painting is one of several by the artist that can be viewed in reverse, showing a still-life from one perspective and a portrait from the other (sometimes referred to as an "Arcimboldo palindrome"). It is thought that Arcimboldo painted the works first as still lifes, subsequently rotating them to reveal and adjust the faces. X-ray evidence shows that this process often required the artist to repaint some of the fruits, having changed their positions.

The similarities of the work to visual puzzle responds to the Renaissance fascination with such riddles and David Alan Brown describes the viewer of these kinds of works as "hav[ing] the same pleasure, as if they were playing a game." Since the 20th century, works such as this one have also become of interest to psychologists and scientists concerned with optical illusions, multiple images and face recognition.

Focusing more on the subject matter than the composition of the portrait, authors Dr. Emil Krén and Dr. Dániel Marx have highlighted the sexual connotations of this portrait, claiming that the cheeks and nose are reminiscent of male sex organs and the lips to female genitals. As such, they propose that the figure portrayed could be the Greek god of fertility and protector of horticulture, Priapus. This would correspond with others of Arcimboldo's works that represent deities, for example Flora (1589) and Vertumnus (c.1590-1591).

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Flora (1589)

Flora (1589)

The subject of the portrait is Flora, the Roman goddess of flowering plants, fruit and the spring. Typically for the artist, her form is composed of whole flowers, buds, petals, stems and leaves. However this portrait, and Vertumnus which follows it, stand out from their predecessors due to their subtlety and delicacy of technique.

Whereas Arcimboldo's portraits could be grotesque, Flora adheres more to traditional understandings of beauty in portraiture. The artist's use of miniature flowers to compose the entire image in such detail has endowed the subject with a convincing sense of three-dimensions and allowed him to carefully delineate the features. This approach contrasts with his previous portraits which are more ostensibly collaged. The result also partly recalls the aesthetic of delicate stained glass, with which the artist had worked as a young man.

The following year, Arcimboldo painted Flora meretrix as a companion to this portrait. The subject matter of the latter is the same, however the treatment is softer, giving the painting a romantic haze that perhaps takes away from some of the precision the artist shows here in depicting the flora. His attention to the various species of flower is akin to that of a horticulturalist and as such, some critics have suggested that the work is a precursor to Baroque still life, characterized by its faithful representation of natural objects. Arcimboldo sent this work to the Emperor Rudolf II in gratitude after he was ennobled as Count Palatine in 1592. It would have appealed to the Emperor's intense interest in botany and horticulture.

Vertumnus (c.1590-91)

Vertumnus (c.1590-91)

Vertumnus is a portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, whom the artist has portrayed as the eponymous Roman god of the seasons, growth, gardens, fruit trees and metamorphosis in nature. It was painted after Arcimboldo returned to Milan and is made out of flowers as well as fruits and vegetables from all four seasons, including apples, pears, grapes, cherries, plums, pomegranates, figs, beans, peas in their pods, corn, onions, artichokes and olives.

The composition of the human subject using natural forms, which is typical of Arcimboldo's portraits, here represents the harmony between the rule of the Emperor and the rule of nature. The abundance of produce is symbolic of the return of a so-called Golden Age - a flourishing of nature, culture and prosperity - under Rudolf II's rule. As such, the portrait flatters the Emperor, perhaps unsurprisingly, given that he was Arcimboldo's employer and patron for eleven years. Rudolf II was, however, not generally a popular ruler. It seems, therefore, that connotations of godliness, power and prosperity would help to improve his public image. Vertumnus was one of the last works that Arcimboldo painted and, with Flora (1588), it is often considered his most accomplished artwork.

Related Artists and Major Works

Mystic Marriage of St Catherine (c.1529)

Mystic Marriage of St Catherine (c.1529)

Artist: Parmigianino (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

The "sheer beauty of the execution" of this painting is highlighted by modern critic David Ekserdjian, showing that its power to enthral has remained consistent over centuries - Vasari himself called it a "picture of extraordinary loveliness". It is the second painting that Parmigianino produced during his Bologna period and is therefore executed with an attitude of refreshed self-belief. Indeed, he was considered the chief talent in the city during his residence there.

St Catherine appears with the spiked-wheel that was used during her martyrdom, and here receives a ring from the Christ Child, symbolising her "marriage" to Christ and therefore her chastity. The child gazes into the face of his mother, who is turned with easy grace away from the viewer, her arm lying in postured elegance down by her side. The arm is echoed in the shapely sliver of foot visible beneath her robe, which in turn rhymes with the composition of Joseph's haloed profile in the bottom left. In the centre-background, meanwhile, a rustic doorway frames two shadowy figures.

Gould comments that the Virgin, "looked at through half-shut eyes, seems to resemble a root vegetable", perhaps hoping to suggest something organic about her pictorial composition. It seems much more likely, however, that Parmigianino would not have expected his audience to view his work in this way. The elongated neck seems to have been conceived of rather in the spirit of grace and elegance (or, perhaps, in a mood of mischief if one reads into it a hint of sacred eroticism). Gould proceeds by saying that "the picture hangs together so perfectly that the eye may not immediately perceive subtleties such as the way the green curtain, curving downward, and Saint Catherine's yellow draperies, curving upward, accentuate her alert and intelligent beauty, or how the doorway in the centre of the background frames both the mysterious figures in front of it, and also the central event of the picture - the exchange of the ring." This ring in fact echoes the one in the convex self-portrait, continuing Parmigianino's motif of bejewelling the focal points of his pictures.

Of perhaps most importance is this painting's feeling of liberty and freedom in its brushstrokes, broader and quicker and more impressionistic than High-Renaissance tastes would allow in a Raphael or a Leonardo. Parmigianino, in his confident mature-phase, manages great pictorial harmony whilst also exploring the radical flourishes of the Mannerist sensibility.

The Wedding Feast at Cana (1563)

The Wedding Feast at Cana (1563)

Movement: Mannerism (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Paolo Veronese (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

This vibrant and monumental painting depicts the Wedding Feast at Cana where Christ, pictured in the lower center, a halo illuminating his head, performed his first miracle, changing water into wine, after his mother informed him the crowd had run out of wine. The Biblical account leaves out any information about the identity of the couple married at Cana and emphasizes only the miracle at his mother's request. As a result, the event became associated with the beginning of his public ministry, and depictions emphasized the encounter between the sacred miracle of Christ and the profane world. Therefore, here, a teaming crowd is depicted, containing many noted portraits as the group of musicians seated in the lower center are the artists Jacopo Bassano, with the flute, Titian with the violin, Tintoretto with the viola, and Pietro Aretino, a noted poet, standing next to Titian. The guests include most of the era's monarchs including Francis I of France, Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire, and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. As a result, the work is a vivid portrayal of its time, while simultaneously capturing the feel of a dynamic and festive occasion.

The work was commissioned by the Black Monks of the Order of Saint Benedict for their monastery's refectory, designed by the noted architect Andrea Palladio. The large format with its almost life-sized figures was meant for viewing from below, making the painting's feast a trompe l'oeil extension of the monks' dining area. Stylistically, the ambitious work combines many elements signature to the time. This includes Venetian colorito, emphasizing a vivid color palette, Florentine line, notable in its architectural perspective, and a Mannerist interest in dynamic movement, juxtaposed narratives, and extreme foreshortening in the highly varied poses of the figures. Veronese's ability to seamlessly weave together these elements made his work innovative among the Mannerists, as did his sophisticated sense of composition and vivid contemporaneity.

The inclusion of so much imagery of secular life made the work somewhat scandalous to the public of its time, but Vasari quickly acclaimed Veronese's work. As art critic Laura Cumming wrote, "what is so astonishing is the coherence of his art. There can be 10, 20, sometimes 30 people on the ground level of a Veronese, and then a scattered audience of onlookers staring down from steps and balconies, yet every inch of what ought to bewilderingly diverse is equally strong, equally clear and significant."

Veronese has continued to influence modern culture, as the novelist Henry James wrote, "Never did an artist take a greater delight in life, seeing it all as a kind of breezy festival." In 2009 Peter Greenaway created a multimedia "vision" of this work at the Venice Biennale in his series "Nine Classic Paintings Revisited."

The Enigma of William Tell (1933)

Artist: Salvador Dalí (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

The renowned legend of William Tell is about a man who is forced to put an apple on top of his son's head and to shoot an arrow through it. The story is a modern retelling of the Biblical sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. Dalí takes this age-old tale further yet with a decidedly Freudian bent. Here, the man is holding a baby, and the baby has a lamb chop on its head. In a twist on the theme of paternal assault, the father figure is about to eat the baby, and the birds in the corner await the leftovers. Dalí had a tumultuous relationship with his family, which is hinted at upon canvas in many of his works. This piece is a fine example of how our dreams continually process such persistent dilemmas in our lives through montages of wild symbolism and subconscious representations.

Dalí used a few other tools from his symbolic toolkit in this painting. The extended buttock has a sexualized/phallic connotation. The fact that it is held up by a crutch shows the father's weakness and need for assistance. At the time Dalí made this painting he was virtually disowned by his father for his relationship with Gala who is supposedly represented by the tiny nut and baby right next to the father's giant foot, in peril of being stomped out.

This artwork also served as a bit of turning point in Dalí's relationship with the Surrealist group. The main Surrealists led by André Breton were leftist supporters of Lenin, while Dalí here gave the evil father figure Lenin's face. The Surrealists were highly upset by such depictions and started proceedings to try to kick Dalí out of their group.


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