Giuseppe Arcimboldo was an Italian painter in the 16th century who was well-known for painting portrait heads made completely of objects, creating an optical illusion. Arcimboldo has made portraits of vegetables, animals, books, and kitchen objects. His portraits have inspired a wealth of art.
The Four Seasons, 1573
Oil on canvas
These portraits have been viewed with different interpretations. One interpretation is that the portraits are an amusing work of fantasy, focusing on the curious double image shown of the individual objects and the image as a whole. Another interpretation holds that they are allegorical and related to the Hapsburg Empire and 16th century science, with the objects acting as complicated symbols, interacting with texts and statements from that time. A third interpretation is that the portraits represent metaphysical statements as a new vision of man.
Many of Arcimboldo’s portraits were painted with oil, but drawings are also documented, especially from his costume design.
Albino Crow, 1574
The fauna and flora used in Arcimbolo’s portraits were based off of exceptionally accurate studies, and all the objects in his portraits were carefully chosen.
Not only did Arcimboldo paint famous oil portraits, he was commissioned to do stained glass windows in cathedrals, painted portraits for the Habsburg court, and worked as a court decorator and costume designer.
Project for a Costume: The Sea Dragon
Pen, blue ink, and watercolor on paper
Self Portrait, 1575
Pen and blue pencil on paper
Arcimboldo worked in a variety of media, and showed different styles within his different commissions, from lifelike oil portraits to fantastical costume design to thought-provoking portraits made of objects. His approach to art was very methodical and thoughtful, but at the same time creative, going beyond the norms of his time to create a completely different style.
The Arcimboldo Effect: Transformations of the Face from the 16th to the 20th Century. Abbeville Press, NY. 1987.
Ferino-Pagden, Sylvia. Arcimboldo: 1526-1593. Skira Editore, Italy. 2007.
Kaufmann, Thomas Dacosta. Arcimboldo: Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. 2009.
Maiorino, Giancarlo. The Portrait of Eccentricity: Arcimboldo and the Mannerist Grotesque. The Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park. 1991.