• gerard van weyenbergh

Arcimboldo, surrealist genius from the Renaissance

Born in Milan, Giuseppe Arcimboldo comes from a family of painters. His father, whom he would have assisted, works for the cathedral of Milan. Arcimboldo started to express his art on glass. He was then noticed and was ordered to paint coat of arms for the Church. However, many gray areas remain as to its formation and beginnings.

Arcimboldo's notoriety seems to have been rapid, although we do not know the paths he took. In 1562, he was called to serve at the Habsburg court. He leaves for Prague. There was nothing grotesque about his portraits at the time, the princely context served as a setting for the blossoming of his talent. He begins the series of the Four Seasons , allegories taking the form of imaginary portraits. Composed of fruits and plants, his faces renew the genre in an original way and immediately know success. Other series such as trades (the gardener, the librarian…) or the elements are collected by art lovers to enrich their cabinet of curiosities.

The "compound heads" are anthropomorphic still lifes that play on the association between the inanimate and the living, illusion and reality. They hide a careful study of nature, the artist tirelessly drawing natural, animal, and plant species, just like his predecessor Leonardo da Vinci. Arcimboldo, moreover, seems to have taken an interest in the works of the Florentine, from whom he knew caricatures which may have inspired him. Although the taste for grotesque physiognomies is found in a certain number of painters of his time, such as Hieronymus Bosch, Arcimboldo has managed to keep real originality. He also had no pupil. Roland Barthes liked to qualify him as a "rhetorician and magician", creator of sensitive rebuses and inspirer of the surrealists.

Without the title of official painter, Arcimboldo thus delighted the court of Maximilian II and Rudolf II for twenty years, between Prague and Vienna, participating in the conception of the festivals pleasures of the sovereigns. For them, he paints pictures but also designs costumes, sets, and banquets.

Arcimboldo ends his career, crowned with glory. Returned to Milan, after being made Count Palatine by Emperor Rudolf II of Habsburg, he died in his hometown at the age of 67.


Winter and Autumn , 1573

After having painted a first series of the Four Seasons , Arcimboldo made copies at the request of Maximilian II. The head of the Winter, consisting of a strain ivy covered and citrus mirrors that of the Fall . The image, we understand, illustrates the drying out of the body. The cycle can indeed be read as an allegory of the different ages of life. Arcimboldo shows itself in phase with the theories of the Renaissance-inspired by Antiquity. The organism is considered as a microcosm which shelters within itself the various elements of nature.

Summer, 1573

Summer is without doubt the most famous head composed of Arcimboldo. She mixes a multitude of fruits and vegetables, arranged in a skillful way. The imaginary portrait emerges from a braided rye doublet (the artist's signature appears on the character's epaulet). The framing of flowers is certainly posterior. This allegory full of abundance illustrates the eternal cycle of the seasons, a symbol of prosperity for the Habsburg regime.


The Librarian , circa 1566

Is this the original or its copy? The mystery remains concerning this curious work by Arcimboldo on the theme of trades. It could be a true portrait, that of the curator of precious manuscripts to Maximilian II. The model is therefore identified with its function, the profession of books. The pyramidal shape of the body, made up of thick connected volumes, forms an A, like the artist's hidden signature. This painting would have inspired Pablo Picasso to realize his famous cubist portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler.

Beaux-Arts Magazine