Spring by Arcimboldo

Allegorical Arcimboldo

We know Arcimboldo for his wry, and clever anthropomorphic paintings like “Four Seasons in One Head.” Unfortunately, art historians have struggled to place Arcimboldo, and the small group of artists who created similar works, in the greater view of art history. Because of this, he is often skipped entirely. His works were appreciated during his life, but after his death they were all but forgotten for centuries, until the Surrealists came along. One train of thought is that “Four Seasons in One Head” might be a self-portrait of Arcimboldo. Today we will explore that idea. First, we will learn about the royal court where Arcimboldo spent a large portion of his career and look at the “Four Seasons” series that Arcimboldo used as a template for this painting.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Arcimboldo?

Maximillian II His Wife and Three Children by Arcimboldo

Many art historians approached Arcimboldo as if he was either a creative genius, or a little mad? In reality, Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526, or 1527 – 1593) was a painter, from Milan. He was talented enough to earn a position at the Habsburg Court of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1562 Arcimboldo headed to Austria, then eventually to Prague. The vast majority of his time at court was under two emperors, Maximilian II, and his son Rudolf II. Both men were dedicated to the arts and sciences, and over time they amassed a huge collection of works. At least one contemporary of Rudolf II described him as the world’s greatest art patron. Rudolf II was known for his eclectic tastes, his dislike of anything common, and his love of all things extraordinary, and marvelous. The court’s liberal attitude to the arts created a perfect storm for Arcimboldo’s creativity to thrive

Allegorical Conquest

In 1863, Arcimboldo began painting the “Four Seasons.” This allegorical series featured four canvases. Each canvas contained a face that was created entirely from vegetation that was common to the season depicted. For “Spring” Arcimboldo incorporated 80 types of flowers into the painting. “Summer,” and “Autumn” were comprised of various fruits, and vegetables. While “Winter” was a withered tree with moss whiskers, and mushroom lips. The paintings are thought to highlight the empire’s vast reach in Europe. They also pointed to the emperor as sovereign over everything within the empire, even the life cycle of the seasons. The works were given to Maximillian II, along with a second series depicting the elements, on New Year’s Day in 1569. The emperor was very fond of this series. He asked Arcimboldo to recreate the canvases two more times to give as gifts to other European royalty.

Spring by Arcimboldo
Spring by Arcimboldo
Summer Arcimboldo
Summer Arcimboldo
Fall Arcimboldo
Fall Arcimboldo
Winter by Arcimboldo
Winter by Arcimboldo

Giuseppe is that You?

“Four Seasons in One Head,” combines elements of all the “Four Seasons” canvases. The tree from “Winter” forms the main figure. Elements from the other seasons adorn the tree almost as if they are achievements, and memories of a long life. Some historians believe that this might be a self-portrait of Arcimboldo in the winter of his life. We know that several of Arcimboldo’s anthropomorphic works were portraits. An example of this is Arcimboldo’s portrait of Rudolf II as “Vertumnus.” In the painting the emperor/roman god is made up entirely of fruits and vegetables. The key difference between Arcimboldo’s allegories, and his portraits is how the sitter is positioned. In the allegories the faces are in profile. In the portraits sitters face forward, or in a three-quarter view, like “Four Seasons in One Head.”

Four Seasons in One Head by Arcimboldo
Four Seasons in One Head by Arcimboldo

Carving A Name for Himself

Europe was fairly volatile after Rudolf II’s reign and a lot of information about Arcimboldo, as well as his paintings were lost to time. Arcimboldo clearly signed “Four Seasons in One Head” for us. There is a small branch that juts up between the three apples that are part of the figure’s headdress. On this branch, Arcimboldo painted a small stretch of peeling bark. There he etched “ARCIMBOLDUS F.” The F stands for fecit. When translated, the inscription reads, “Arcimboldo made this.”

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Kristin Johnson

I love art, and writing. One is deeply personal, the other helped me get my BA in journalism from IU. I am passionate about storytelling. My greatest professional compliment came from a business owner who said, “Your profile piece captured everything I believe about my business.”
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