Important Art by Giuseppe Arcimboldo
Shortly after his appointment to the Habsburg court, Arcimboldo painted the unexceptional (in that the subject matter and style conformed to all the usual conventions associated with royal portraiture) Maximilian II, His Wife, and Three Children. However, Maximilian II is an important work in his oeuvre because it serves to illustrate an intermediate phase in the artist's move towards the full Mannerist style which came to stunning fruition only a year later through his commencement of his famous Four Seasons portraits. Indeed, the Four Seasons gave an indication of the wit and inventiveness for which Arcimboldo is much better known. The evolution of his unique style still remains difficult to trace, however, owing to the fact that so much of Arcimboldo's "conventional" work has been lost. Nevertheless, it is clear to see that his use of fruits, vegetables, animals and plants refer further back to his youthful nature studies. One might also find "Arcimboldesque" montage qualities in the artist's aforementioned stained glass works (little of which survives).
Four Seasons is a series of four paintings, for which Arcimboldo is still perhaps best known. The series can be seen as the epitome of the Mannerist trait which emphasises the close relationship between mankind and nature. Each portrait represents one of the seasons and is made up of objects that characterise that particular time of year. Spring is a smiling young woman, whose face comprises pink and white blossom skin with a lily-bud nose and the ear of a tulip. Her hair is made up of colorful flowers while her dress is made of green plants and a white floral ruff. Summer is made up of seasonal fruit and vegetables, whose bright colors stand out against the dark background, Summer's smiling face reassures the viewer of the warm benevolence of the sunshine season. Autumn shows a man whose body is a broken barrel and whose face comprises a pear (nose), apple (cheek), pomegranate (chin) and mushroom (ear), all ripe to bursting. Autumn demonstrates the fertility of the seasons and, in his protruding tongue, the artist's anticipation for these ripened fruits. Winter is an old man wrapped in a straw mat. He is made up of an aged tree stump, with pieces of broken-off branch and scratched bark for his features, and a swollen mushroom for a mouth.
Whilst only Winter and Summer survive from the original series of Four Seasons paintings, Arcimboldo's patron, the Emperor Maximilian II, liked them so much that he commissioned a second set in 1573 as a gift for Augustus, the Elector of Saxony (it is the second set that remains intact). As a further expression of his appreciation, the Emperor participated in a festival in 1571, directed by Arcimboldo, in which he and other members of his court dressed up as the elements of seasons.
Additionally, the four portraits in Arcimboldo's later series Four Elements (1566) - Air, Fire, Earth and Water - correspond with spring, summer, autumn and winter respectively. The overall effect of the two series is to suggest thus that the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (who commissioned both sets of paintings) influences everything on the earth down to its most primal forces. By combining objects and creatures into faces, moreover, Arcimboldo transforms chaos into harmony, which could also be seen as a reflection on the Holy powers of the Emperor. As art historian Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann confirms: the paintings were intended to be humorous, but "the humor resolves itself in a serious way," probably as a comment on the majesty of the ruler.
Though Arcimboldo is best known for his portraits made up of flowers, vegetables and fruits, the artist also made several portraits made of other assembled objects with relevance to the sitter. For example The Waiter (1574) depicts a server made up of crockery, whilst this portrait, The Librarian, is made up of objects that were associated with libraries. These include books (comprising the body, head and hair), study room curtains (the clothing) and animal-tail dusters (the beard).
Perhaps owing to the nature of the subject matter, the overall impression of the figure is quite disjointed in comparison to previous portraits. The hard edges of the books disrupt the overall impression of a portrait and render the subject robotic in appearance. It is possible that this lack of humanity is a contributing factor to the controversy surrounding this portrait, arising from the suggestion that Arcimboldo intended this portrait to mock scholars and the wealthy elite.
Since books were available only to the very rich, many owners collected them as status symbols whilst being unable to read the contents of their collections. The subject of this portrait is made up of books yet brings no additional contribution or personal characteristics to the table. Unlike Arcimboldo's portrait The Jurist of the same year, the subject of the portrait has not been identified. This might also suggest that Arcimboldo had in mind a group or class of people as opposed to an individual.