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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Giuseppe Arcimboldo was an Italian Mannerist painter who was born in 1526 in Milan and died in 1593. He is best known for his imaginative human head portrait creations using inanimate objects, such as vegetables, books, fruits, animals and flowers.

Said to be 400 years ahead of his time, his paintings were considered to be incredibly modern. Today, many first-time viewers of his work assume he is a current artist using computer graphics to produce the creations. Arcimboldo combined two traditional fine painting genres in his 16th-century works, including still life and portraits. He did not become famous in his time during which religious scenes and traditional paintings were the norm, but for his unique composites of produce and objects, which added a distinct touch of humour to the art.

His Early Life

Giuseppe Arcimboldo was born and raised in Milan at a period during which the Italian Renaissance was beginning to fade. His town of birth was linked to the Italian traditions and was also an artistic hub. His father, Biagio Arcimboldo, was also an artist, famous for his religious paintings in the styles of the Renaissance. He began his career as a cartoon designer, primarily on stained glass windows, stationed at the Milan Cathedral at the age of 21. In 1549, his career took a different turn, after he was contracted as a stained-glass window painter for the Duomo and in 1551, he was contracted to paint the courts of arms for Ferdinand I. He then painted the cathedral of Monza in 1558 and drew the Virgin tapestry cartoon, which to date, is still on display in Lombardi Como Cathedral.

It was in 1561 when Giuseppe Arcimboldo earned himself a position in Maximilian II as a court theatre painter after moving to Prague. His artwork was composed of jokes, metaphorical meanings and puns that were loved by his audience. He would then go on to live with the powerful archduke Hapsburg family in Vienna for 20 years before returning to Milan in 1587. Despite returning to his hometown, he kept close contact with the Hapsburgs and continued painting for them until he died.

While at the Hapsburg courts, he was loved and famed for his unique signature style of painting, which was considered intellectual and comical. This style was first seen in 1569 when Arcimboldo released his figurative portraits. One of the sets was named The Four Seasons, featuring fall, summer and winter. The Four Elements was the second portrait unveiled, personalising air, the earth, fire and water. Although for the Renaissance incorporating individuals to personify abstract ideas was normal, Giuseppe Arcimboldo married natural items in his portraits to appear like human heads. It is worth noting that during his time, artists were executed when they did not please the commissioners. Arcimboldo was lucky; his patron loved his works.

Style and Character

Most of Arcimboldo’s artwork is surrealistic and not representational. Largely, its compositions use items from nature, painted or used as facial features. He, for instance, uses leaves as hair, apples as cheeks, cucumber as a nose and so on, making the portrait look human from a distance. He has also used controversy in his paintings. This is better explained in his oil on canvas painting known as The Librarian. Here, the artwork features a human character, created from books and other objects. This painting is believed to have been mockery on the wealthy elite. During his time, only the wealthy could afford to purchase a collection of books. Apparently, these people were considered to have more wealth than brains, given than most of them could not comprehend the content of the books they had.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo's style was purely under the category of mannerism. This is whereby artists showed the relationship between natural objects and humans in their artwork. It was a popular style between 1510 and 1590. There were other artists who leaned towards the mannerism style, such as Leonardo da Vinci. Most of them, unlike Arcimboldo, produced content that addressed the demands of the day and the urges of the wealthy. Most of Arcimboldo's paintings were significant to the Hapsburg family. The figure of the earth, for instance, is painted with a lion skin, while that of winter has a cloak with an M to represent Maximillian. These paintings pleased Maximillian so much that in 1571, he hosted a festival in their honour.

Career Development

Giuseppe Arcimboldo's paintings challenged many artists of his time, and by the time he moved to the Habsburg court, he had all the skills of a professional Renaissance expert. It was at the court where his progressive and profound thinking was cultivated as he worked with zoologists, alchemists, astronomers and other elite professionals. Habsburg was the most recognised centre for sciences and arts in Europe. Arcimboldo thrived as a designer, an organiser and a portrait painter. He received a worthy salary for his merits, allowing him to lead a successful career.

Due to the invasion of the Swedish Prague in 1648 during the Thirty Years’ War, most of his works were lost. For this reason, most of those pieces, including his religious paintings and conventional portraits, did not get the spotlight they deserved. It is his unique mannerist paintings that have made their way into the films, album covers, novels and comics. Art critics still debate whether Giuseppe Arcimboldo's works were a result of a disturbed mind or whimsical thinking. Most scholars are of the view that with his fascination with puzzles and riddles, he could not have suffered from mental imbalance. Today, Arcimboldo is elevated to the ranks of the best 16th-century artists.

Later Period

The last emperor Giuseppe Arcimboldo worked for was Rudolf I for 11 years. This period marked the peak of his career, particularly due to Rudolf's love for horticulture, exotic creatures and botany. He found the ultimate freedom to include extraordinary observations of animals and plants fetched from Europe by Rudolf's agents. It was during this period that he painted a portrait of himself as Four Seasons and that of Rudolf II. His illustrious career was highly celebrated by his Italian Contemporaries, who honoured him with manuscripts and poetry. Before leaving for Prague, Rudolf II made Arcimboldo count palatine for his faithful and long service, and also awarded him 1,500 Rhenish guilders.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo died a year later in 1593 from kidney stones at the age of 66. Arcimboldo received notable recognition during his lifetime, but many historians did not take his art seriously. Instead, they viewed the artist as just a quirky painter. However, in the rise of Surrealism in the 1920s and the Dada anti-art movement, his visual expressionism was revived. His works were rediscovered in the 20th century by Salvador Dali and other Surrealist artists. Some of his popular paintings today include:

  • The 1566 Librarian oil on canvas
  • 1573 Autumn, oil on wood
  • 1573 Winter, oil on wood
  • 1573 Spring, oil on wood
  • 1573 Summer, oil on wood
  • 1591 Emperor Rudolf II as Vertumnus, oil/wood
  • 1590 The Gardner, oil on panel

Arcimboldo has been known to influence many artists, including Istvan Orosz, Sandro del Prete, Shigeo Fukuda, Octavio Ocampo and Jan Svankmejer films. Most of Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s works are displayed in famous museums around the world, including Uffizi Florence, Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, Louvre Paris and many museums in Italy, the USA and Sweden. It is hard to find, from all of the most famous artists from the past few centuries, anyone who is quite as unique as Giuseppe Arcimboldo.