Giuseppe Arcimboldo
Biography of Italian Mannerist: Famous for Fruit & Vegetable Portraits.

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Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus (1591)

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-93)

The Milanese artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo was an Italian Mannerist artist of the 16th century, who is famous for his portrait art featuring allegorical and symbolic arrangements of fruits and vegetables in a caricature of the sitter.

Although his style was much copied, Arcimboldo was considered more of a curiosity than a great painter until the late 1920s when his works were "rediscovered" by followers of Surrealism. Now regarded by art critics as one of the most innovative and original Old Masters of the Mannerism era, and one of the best portrait artists of the 16th century.

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Arcimboldo was born in Milan, the son of a painter. Precise details of his early arts training are not known, but he seems to have been a talented and versatile artist, able to turn his hand to a number of religious art forms, including stained glass art and tapestry design as well as fresco painting. He began in 1549 by designing stained glass windows for Milan Cathedral. How long this commission took is unclear, but by 1556 he was producing frescos for Monza Cathedral, in collaboration with fellow painter Giuseppe Meda, and in 1558, he executed a series of design sketches for a large piece of tapestry art - the Dormition of the Virgin Mary - which still hangs in the Cathedral at Como. Thus by the time of his early 30s, Arcimboldo had experienced a varied but perfectly conventional and unremarkable career as a religious painter, draughtsman and designer working for the Catholic Church.


Nevertheless, he must have had noticeable talent, for we next hear of him in 1562 being summoned to the Imperial Habsburg court in Vienna and appointed court portraitist to the Emperor Ferdinand I, and later, to Maximilian II and his son Rudolf II at the court in Prague. In Vienna, he was able to give full expression to his range of artistic talents. He became involved in costume and stage design, wrote a treatise on the theory and practice of fine art, and became the official art agent for the Emperor.

Arcimboldo's Unique Portrait Heads

He also invented a completely new genre of portrait painting, which involved the arrangement of flowers, fruits, animals, books and other everyday objects - into a recognizable human face, typically with allegorical, symbolic and sometimes satirical meanings. These bizarre portraits which, despite appearances, accorded with both the cinquecento fascination for riddles, puzzles, and grotesque portraiture (see, for example, the drawing Grotesque Profile (c.1487) by Leonardo Da Vinci) - were some of the most original and imaginative paintings ever produced in the post-Renaissance era, if not in the history of art. They were a perfect example of the new Mannerist painting style. They were also well received at court by both the residents and their visitors. The visiting King Augustus of Saxony, for instance, commissioned a copy of Arcimboldo's The Four Seasons which was to feature his own regal symbols. And Emperor Rudolf II was so impressed with Arcimboldo that he awarded him numerous commissions for paintings.

In 1587, Arcimboldo returned to Milan but remained in contact with Rudolf II. Three years before he died, he produced one of his final works - a portrait of the Emperor (Rudolf II as Vertumnus, 1590, Skoklosters Castle, Sweden) depicting him as the Roman God or Orchards. Given numerous awards during his retirement in Milan, he died in 1593 at the age of 66.

Reputation and Legacy

Although he achieved notable recognition during his life, Arcimboldo's art was not really taken seriously by most historians, who viewed him as something of an oddity as a painter. However, in the wake of the Dada anti-art movement and the rise of Surrealism in Paris during the 1920s, Arcimboldo's visual expressionism was rediscovered by artists like Salvador Dali, and his reputation soared. He remains an iconic figure, as shown by the popularity of his works and exhibitions such as "The Arcimboldo Effect" (Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 1987). His unique art, created some 350 years before the innovations of 20th century greats like Dali and others, must surely make him one of the greatest and most innovative of portrait artists since the Renaissance.

Works by Arcimboldo

Examples of his famous portrait paintings include:

- The Librarian (1566) oil on canvas, Skoklosters Slott, Sweden
- Autumn (1573) oil on wood, Musee Louvre, Paris
- Winter (1573) oil on wood, Musee Louvre, Paris
- Spring (1573) oil on wood, Musee Louvre, Paris
- Summer (1573) oil on wood, Musee Louvre, Paris
- Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus (1591) oil/wood, Skoklosters Slott, Sweden
- The Gardner (1590) oil on panel, Museo Civico, Cremona

Works by Arcimboldo can be found in several of the world's best art museums, including the Louvre Paris, the Uffizi Florence, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, the Pinakothek in Munich, the Habsburg Schloss Ambras in Innsbruck, and numerous museums in Sweden and Italy. In America, his paintings hang in collections at the Denver Art Museum, Colorado, the Menil Foundation in Houston, Texas, and The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut.

For biographies of more Mannerist painters, see: Jacopo Pontormo (1494-1556), Parmigianino (1503-40), and Jacopo Bassano (1515-1592).

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