“Vertumnus,” 1590, is a portrait of a Habsburg ruler, the
Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Arcimboldo betrays a knowledge of plants from the New World: corn and pumpkins. This painting may suggest Rudolf II’s worldliness and the bounty of his reign.

In the tradition of Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer, 16th century painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo used his artistic skills to record his knowledge of the animals, plants, birds and fish, and he combined the seemingly opposite disciplines of art and science in a unexpected way. The National Gallery exhibition of his paintings is called Arcimboldo 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy. The paintings on display are primarily portraits. But instead of recognizable faces with traditional features, he composed his portrait heads of painted vegetables, fruits, flowers, fire, fowl, fish and frogs. His human beings are a rich composite of the natural world.

Arcimboldo worked in Vienna as the court painter for the Holy Roman Emperor, first Maximilian II and then his son, Rudolf, II. When Rudolf II moved the capital to Prague, the artist followed. However, his life began in Milan, where Leonardo da Vinci had spent 17 years and had defined the artistic legacy of the region with its special interest in naturalism. Both Arcimboldo and his father made designs for the stained-glass windows of Milan Cathedral. Emperor Maximilian II was known for his interest in scientific studies, botanical gardens and zoological habitats with exotic creatures, and it is likely that Arcimboldo was already recognized for his drawings of the animal and plant worlds when the Emperor summoned him to Vienna in 1562.

Shortly after arriving in Vienna, Arcimboldo did a series of the Four seasons. ” Spring,” right, contains some 80 variety of flowering plants. Fruits and vegetables make up the bounty of “Summer,” below.

In 1563, Arcimboldo made his first set of paintings: four profile portrait heads to personify the Four Seasons. Spring is the most beautiful, comprised of eighty varieties of flowering plants to form a man’s head and shoulders.

Summer shows a profile of fruits and vegetables facing the opposite direction. There’s a cucumber nose, teeth made of peas, a big apple cheek (or peach?), an ear of corn and a cloak woven of wheat.

It’s interesting to compare these depictions of the seasons next to Pieter Bruegel’s paintings of the months, a series of perhaps six landscapes (only 5 exist) painted in 1565, around nearly the same time. Bruegel’s The Harvesters depicts a late summer landscape of men and women working and living in nature. Bruegel’s peasants are in harmony with nature, but Arcimboldo’s man has become nature.One of my favorite paintings in the Metropolitan Museum, New York, is Pieter Bruegel’s “The Harvesters,” a late summer scene that is part of a series, also. It dates two years later than Arcimboldo’s Four Seasons.Shortly after Arcimboldo painted the Four Seasons, he painted a group of the Four Elements. Earth, Air, Fire and Water contain creatures found in the sources from which all matter was believed to have originated. Although Air has not survived, it was made entirely of birds and prominently featured the peacock and eagle, symbols of the Habsburgs. Fire‘s hair is aflame, his lips made of matches and his tongue is the light of an oil lamp. Earth and Water are the most complex, formed out of myriads of creatures. The species were portrayed accurately, although the artist distorted sizes to fit into facial features. These men, personifications of earth and water, are hideously ugly! (See the picture of Water in part II)

Copyright Julie Schauer 2010-2016