Progression of Art
Maximilian II, His Wife, and Three Children
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.
Oil on canvas - Louvre Museum, Paris
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.
Oil on canvas - Skokloster Castle, Sweden
The Jurist is a disturbing portrait of a member of the legal profession. His head is made up of poultry and fish and his body of legal documents. Whereas in previous portraits (such as Four Elements) Arcimboldo has chosen the collaged elements to represent the nobility and benevolence of his patrons, this portrait is intended to discredit and defame. The use of meat and poultry to make up the lawyer's face illustrates the artist's attitude towards his subject. The expression on the lawyer's face is sneering and his very person is made up of what is thought to be rotting flesh. Particularly distasteful are his fish-bone moustache, fish tail beard and decapitated frog nose.
It is not known with any certainty whether the sitter is a particular lawyer or if The Jurist is a caricature of the legal profession in general. According to the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, however, the painting shows the German jurist Ulrich Zasius, vice-chancellor of Maximilian II. If the portrait does indeed show Zasius, then the poor light in which he has been painted could be a reflection of his reputation for dishonesty in his service to the Emperor - the first intended viewer of this portrait. It is also possible that Arcimboldo's portrait mocks Zasius's disfigurement, which he is thought to have contracted as a result of a sexually transmitted disease.
Oil on canvas - Nationalmuseum, Stockholm, Sweden
Vegetables In A Bowl Or The Gardener
This painting is one of several by the artist that can be viewed in reverse, showing a still-life from one perspective and a portrait from the other (sometimes referred to as an "Arcimboldo palindrome"). It is thought that Arcimboldo painted the works first as still lifes, subsequently rotating them to reveal and adjust the faces. X-ray evidence shows that this process often required the artist to repaint some of the fruits, having changed their positions.
The similarities of the work to visual puzzle responds to the Renaissance fascination with such riddles and David Alan Brown describes the viewer of these kinds of works as "hav[ing] the same pleasure, as if they were playing a game." Since the 20th century, works such as this one have also become of interest to psychologists and scientists concerned with optical illusions, multiple images and face recognition.
Focusing more on the subject matter than the composition of the portrait, authors Dr. Emil Krén and Dr. Dániel Marx have highlighted the sexual connotations of this portrait, claiming that the cheeks and nose are reminiscent of male sex organs and the lips to female genitals. As such, they propose that the figure portrayed could be the Greek god of fertility and protector of horticulture, Priapus. This would correspond with others of Arcimboldo's works that represent deities, for example Flora (1589) and Vertumnus (c.1590-1591).
Oil on wood - Museo Civico "Ala Ponzone", Cremona, Italy
The subject of the portrait is Flora, the Roman goddess of flowering plants, fruit and the spring. Typically for the artist, her form is composed of whole flowers, buds, petals, stems and leaves. However this portrait, and Vertumnus which follows it, stand out from their predecessors due to their subtlety and delicacy of technique.
Whereas Arcimboldo's portraits could be grotesque, Flora adheres more to traditional understandings of beauty in portraiture. The artist's use of miniature flowers to compose the entire image in such detail has endowed the subject with a convincing sense of three-dimensions and allowed him to carefully delineate the features. This approach contrasts with his previous portraits which are more ostensibly collaged. The result also partly recalls the aesthetic of delicate stained glass, with which the artist had worked as a young man.
The following year, Arcimboldo painted Flora meretrix as a companion to this portrait. The subject matter of the latter is the same, however the treatment is softer, giving the painting a romantic haze that perhaps takes away from some of the precision the artist shows here in depicting the flora. His attention to the various species of flower is akin to that of a horticulturalist and as such, some critics have suggested that the work is a precursor to Baroque still life, characterized by its faithful representation of natural objects. Arcimboldo sent this work to the Emperor Rudolf II in gratitude after he was ennobled as Count Palatine in 1592. It would have appealed to the Emperor's intense interest in botany and horticulture.
Oil on board - Private collection
Vertumnus is a portrait of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, whom the artist has portrayed as the eponymous Roman god of the seasons, growth, gardens, fruit trees and metamorphosis in nature. It was painted after Arcimboldo returned to Milan and is made out of flowers as well as fruits and vegetables from all four seasons, including apples, pears, grapes, cherries, plums, pomegranates, figs, beans, peas in their pods, corn, onions, artichokes and olives.
The composition of the human subject using natural forms, which is typical of Arcimboldo's portraits, here represents the harmony between the rule of the Emperor and the rule of nature. The abundance of produce is symbolic of the return of a so-called Golden Age - a flourishing of nature, culture and prosperity - under Rudolf II's rule. As such, the portrait flatters the Emperor, perhaps unsurprisingly, given that he was Arcimboldo's employer and patron for eleven years. Rudolf II was, however, not generally a popular ruler. It seems, therefore, that connotations of godliness, power and prosperity would help to improve his public image. Vertumnus was one of the last works that Arcimboldo painted and, with Flora (1588), it is often considered his most accomplished artwork.
Oil on panel - Skokloster Castle, Sweden