Giuseppe Arcimboldo was an Italian Renaissance painter known for his intricate paintings, which combined inanimate or found objects into a portrait that would resemble the portrait subject. At the age of 22, Arcimboldo received a commission to paint stained glass windows, and later received other commissions to paint frescoes and design tapestries for Cathedrals in Spain. In 1562, he became the court painter to Ferdinand I of Vienna, and later for Maximilien II and his son Rudolph II of Prague. At this time, he was also employed as the court decorator and costume designer.
Most of Arcimboldo’s remaining works are of collected objects, which have been assembled to resemble people. He used fruits, flowers, vegetables, fish, and books, and other things, (among them slabs of meat), and arranged them in such a way as to not only resemble a person, but the person’s resemblance as well. Due to his strange rendition of the human figure, there is a debate among art critics as to whether or not Arcimboldo’s paintings are the work of a deranged mind. A more likely explanation, however, is that the paintings are a product of the Renaissance era in which he lived, which was fascinated with riddles, puzzles, and the bizarre. If this was the case, then Arcimboldo’s strange depictions were only just catering to the tastes of the time.
Many of his works were taken from Prague during the Thirty Years War by the invading Swedish army, and Arcimboldo was almost completely lost to history. His works were only just rediscovered at the beginning of the 20th century by the Surrealist painters, including Salvador Dali, who were heavily influenced by the artist’s unique style.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo (Italian: [dʒuˈzɛppe artʃimˈbɔldo]; also spelled Arcimboldi) (1526 or 1527 – July 11, 1593) was an Italian painter best known for creating imaginative portrait heads made entirely of objects such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, fish, and books.
Giuseppe's father, Biagio Arcimboldo, was an artist of Milan. Like his father, Giuseppe Arcimboldo started his career as a designer for stained glass and frescoes at local cathedrals when he was 21 years old.
In 1562, he became court portraitist to Ferdinand I at the Habsburg court in Vienna, Austria and later, to Maximilian II and his son Rudolf II at the court in Prague. He was also the court decorator and costume designer. Augustus, Elector of Saxony, who visited Vienna in 1570 and 1573, saw Arcimboldo's work and commissioned a copy of his The Four Seasons which incorporates his own monarchic symbols.
Arcimboldo's conventional work, on traditional religious subjects, has fallen into oblivion, but his portraits of human heads made up of vegetables, plants, fruits, sea creatures and tree roots, were greatly admired by his contemporaries and remain a source of fascination today.
At a distance, his portraits looked like normal human portraits. However, individual objects in each portrait were actually overlapped together to make various anatomical shapes of a human. They were carefully constructed by his imagination. The assembled objects in each portrait were not random: each was related by characterization. In the portrait now represented by several copies called The Librarian, Arcimboldo used objects that signified the book culture at that time, such as the curtain that created individual study rooms in a library. The animal tails, which became the beard of the portrait, were used as dusters. By using everyday objects, the portraits were decoration and still-life paintings at the same time. His works showed not only nature and human beings, but also how closely they were related.
After a portrait was released to the public, some scholars, who had a close relationship with the book culture at that time, argued that the portrait ridiculed their scholarship. In fact, Arcimboldo criticized rich people’s misbehavior and showed others what happened at that time through his art. In The Librarian, although the painting might have appeared ridiculous, it also contained a criticism of wealthy people who collected books only to own them, rather than to read them.
Art critics debate whether his paintings were whimsical or the product of a deranged mind. A majority of scholars hold to the view, however, that given the Renaissance fascination with riddles, puzzles, and the bizarre (see, for example, the grotesque heads of Leonardo da Vinci), Arcimboldo, far from being mentally imbalanced, catered to the taste of his times.
Arcimboldo died in Milan, where he had retired after leaving the Prague service. It was during this last phase of his career that he produced the composite portrait of Rudolph II (see above), as well as his self-portrait as the Four Seasons. His Italian contemporaries honored him with poetry and manuscripts celebrating his illustrious career.
When the Swedish army invaded Prague in 1648, during the Thirty Years' War, many of Arcimboldo's paintings were taken from Rudolf II's collection.
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