The National Gallery of Art in Washington has acquired a fascinating portrait, “The Four Seasons in One Head,” now on view with the Arcimboldo exhibition.

The artist painted this composite of the seasons in 1590, while still in service to the emperor but after he had returned to Milan. He chose a naked, gnarled tree stump of winter for the man’s head, but draped it in spring flowers for a necklace. Further up the head are branches holding summer wheat, then several branches that translate into horns. Cherries hang over the left ear, while apples and autumn grapes poke through the branches for his headdress. Curiously, this ugly creature smirks at us with crooked eyes in a 3/4 view.

A closer look at this allegorical head shows that Arcimboldo peeled away the bark of one branch growing out of the head and signed his name on the exposed wood, perhaps indicating it is a self-portrait. The artist gave this painting to a friend. Experts have suggested that the painting reflects the subject in his state of decay; Arcimboldo was in the late season of his life at this time. He died three years after completing this portrait. Certainly it took a fine sense of humor to see mankind the way Arcimboldo did.

What are we to think of him describing human nature in such unflattering terms? It is a far cry from the idealized portraits of Raphael (see The Veiled Woman, Parts I & II, January 2010 of this blog). Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa and other beautiful, benignant figures. Surprisingly, he also did drawings of extremely ugly men and women, with disfigured or exaggerated features too large or too small. A few of these tiny drawings are on view in the same exhibition.

Alcimboldo was familiar with Leonardo’s grotesque portraits and chose to make his portraits in that vein rather than in the beautiful manner of the High Renaissance. High Renaissance artists had used outward beauty to symbolize inner virtue.

If the earlier artists saw truth in perfection, Arcimboldo suggests he saw truth in something quite opposite. In his men (and sometimes women), exquisitely painted images of fish, fruit, lizards or frogs make up the small details of their faces. These creatures are part of us and we are made of them. We’re an ugly conglomerate. Arcimboldo exposes our human nature, a nature made no better than the natural world. Is our own ugliness his truth?

“Water” from the Four Elements series. Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna