by Anne Leader and Douglas Dow

On this day in 1593, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, the Milanese painter best known for his portraits made of still life objects, died in his hometown. Arcimboldo trained with his father Biagio, with whom he worked in Milan Cathedral. Giuseppe was paid through 1558 for supplying paintings, designs for an altar canopy, and stained-glass window designs for the Milanese Duomo. In 1562 he was appointed court portraitist to Emperor Ferdinand I in Vienna, and later, to Maximilian II and his son Rudolf II at Prague.

Though primarily known for his fantastic heads composed of still life objects, Arcimboldo in fact painted numerous conventional religious subjects and traditional portraits. However, it is his human heads made up of flowers, vegetables, fruit, animals, sea creatures and tree roots that continue to fascinate and amuse viewers today, just as they did in the Renaissance. Some of these “portraits” read as a still life when turned upside down. The heads are allegorical representations of abstract concepts—the Seasons or the Elements, for example—that are composed of items closely associated with the ideas that they personify. Summer is a portrait made from the grains, fruits, and vegetables that are plentiful during that season. Water is built up in a configuration of creatures, shells, and corals found in the ocean, just as Air is composed of birds who make the sky their home. Arcimboldo spent almost all of his professional life working for the Habsburgs in Vienna and Prague, and his paintings are usually understood as glorifications of imperial rule. Widely admired in their own time, Arcimboldo’s works were also celebrated in the twentieth century by the Surrealists.

References: Thomas Dacosta Kaufmann. “Arcimboldo, Giuseppe.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. ; Helen Langdon. “Arcimboldo, Giuseppe.” The Oxford Companion to Western Art. Ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford Art Online. Oxford University Press. ; Elena Pavoledo. “Arcimboldi, Giuseppe.” Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani. .

Vertumnus, c. 1590, oil on panel, Skoklosters Slott, Bålsta (Stockholm)

The Vegetable Gardener, 1587-90, oil on wood, Museo Civico “Ala Ponzone,” Cremona

The Librarian, c. 1566, oil on canvas, Skoklosters Slott, Bålsta (Stockholm)

Maximilian II, His Wife and Three Children, 1563, oil on canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Reversible Head with Basket of Fruit, c. 1590, oil on wood, French & Company, New York

Scenes from the Life of St John the Baptist: Naming of the Baptist, 1545, fresco, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, Milan

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