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Giuseppe Arcimboldo: Unique in His Time

The artwork of Giuseppe Arcimboldo is without a doubt one of the greatest surprises of the Renaissance. His signature style, human portraits depicted with inanimate objects such as fruits, flowers, vegetables, books and household objects, would seem to fit easily into the world of 20th century art. It was his nontraditional approach that garnered the delight and appreciation of his benefactors during the times in which he lived.

Unfortunately, little is known about this remarkable Renaissance painter except the details of his artistic career. Born in Milan, Italy in 1527, Arcimboldo was the son of a painter. At the age of 22, he began work on his first commission: the design of several stained glass windows for the Milan Cathedral, along with his father. After his father’s death, he continued with his work for the Milan Cathedral as well as several tapestry designs for the Como Cathedral.

In 1562, most likely through his connections with nobility, Arcimboldo was summoned to Vienna to become a court painter and festival organizer for the court of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I. It was at this time that Arcimboldo unleashed his unconventional tendencies in a series of portraits of the imperial family. He also created a series of paintings of the Four Seasons – four portraits composed of plant matter such as flowers, fruits and vegetables -- a theme that he would revisit several times in his artistic career. According to court documents, Arcimboldo’s clever and unique creations were well-received and immensely popular.

After the death of Ferdinand I in 1564, Arcimboldo continued as a court painter for his successor, Maximillian II. Although much of his work is now lost, we know that he continued with his bizarre portraiture with unique paintings such as The Lawyer and The Cook -- this time employing strange objects such as fish and animals. He also created Water and Fire (shown below). Besides painting, Arcimboldo had many other duties at the court. He acted as stage designer, costume designer, architect and engineer. In 1570, he was sent to Prague to design an extraordinary pageant. Indeed, Giuseppe Arcimboldo was a man of many talents!

Arcimboldo continued as a court painter upon the death of Maximillian in 1575, serving his successor, Rudolf II. In fact, it was Arcimboldo who designed Rudolf’s coronation ceremony. Rudolf, who came to be known as a legendary patron of the arts, was apparently very fond of Arcimboldo and appreciated his diverse talents. During his service under Rudolf, Arcimboldo painted the Four Seasons two more times. He continued to arrange pageants and tournaments as before and he also functioned as an art specialist in charge of the purchase of works of art and natural curiosities. But as he approached old age, Arcimboldo longed to return to his native Milan and finally, in 1587, his request was granted. Although he left court life, he continued to paint for Rudolf and in 1591, sent to him what has become one of his most famous paintings – a portrait of Rudolf entitled Vertumnus in which he is depicted as the Etruscan god of the change of seasons, entirely fashioned from fruits, flowers and vegetables. Delighted with the portrait as well as with Arcimboldo’s other accomplishments, Rudolf bestowed upon him the noble title of Count Palatine in 1592. The following year, Arcimboldo died in Milan.

Although it is believed that Arcimboldo also executed a large number of traditional paintings, most of these have been lost. Because of his unique style, it is surprising that Arcimboldo has not been remembered as well as other less creative artists of his time. But perhaps it is proof that artists are largely remembered in the context of the style of the era in which they lived.

To see a gallery of the works of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, please click here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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