Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vertumnus (Emperor Rudolf II), 1590. Oil on wood, 70.5 x 57.5 cm. Skoklosters Slott, Bålsta (Stockholm)

Arcimboldo’s Artistic Harvest

I have never imagined, whilst gazing at a bowl of fruit, that its contents could ever resemble anything like a human face. Making a remotely artistic connection between food and painting would take me back first to potato-printing in primary school, advancing perhaps to a somewhat more sophisticated ‘Still life of pear and mug,’ created in my later school years. Giuseppe Arcimboldo saw things differently, which is of course not a huge surprise! Although perhaps his fruity infatuation stemmed from similar beginnings…

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Summer, 1572. Oil on panel, 57 x 61 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Summer, 1572. Oil on panel, 57 x 61 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, Vienna

Arcimboldo, born in 1527, and most famed for his imaginative portrait heads in which he uses various fruit and veg to render his often esteemed subjects, began his professional career as a designer in the workshops of Milan Cathedral, showing no initial intention of becoming a serious painter of fine art. This observation alone may be the extent of the artistic similarity that he and I share! He was also court decorator and costume designer, responsible for staging the most tremendous and anticipated courtly festivities and masquerades at the Habsburg court. I myself am fond of a party… maybe there is yet still hope that my potato prints shall find fame!

Arcimboldo’s sense of theatre, drama and flamboyance can be seen in his portraits. From his unique style of painting grew both contemporary outrage, and so flourished formal appraisal for the artist. His paintings are certainly ripe for multiple interpretations.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vertumnus (Emperor Rudolf II), 1590. Oil on wood, 70.5 x 57.5 cm. Skoklosters Slott, Bålsta (Stockholm)
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vertumnus (Emperor Rudolf II), 1590. Oil on wood, 70.5 x 57.5 cm. Skoklosters Slott, Bålsta (Stockholm)

Whether or not Arcimboldo’s crop of portraits is to be taken as serious substance or light hearted rhetoric is perhaps a matter of artistic taste.

On the one hand, it could be considered quite bizarre, if not utterly mad to depict, for example, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, imperial figurehead and might of the Habsburg Monarchy, as having a head compiled exclusively of fruit and shrubbery! At worst, the composition might imply that the ruler’s head contained no more intelligence than an onion. Drawing once again upon my own notably amateur artistic experience, I can say that rendering a subject’s head as a tomato is unlikely to be taken as a complement.

Once again, Arcimboldo and his contemporaries of the Renaissance period saw things differently. Still, little surprise there! His paintings show the bounteous extent of his artistic vision and his fantastical style of painting was influential beyond its years.

If you too enjoyed potato-painting as a youngster, or if you would simply like to find out more about the life and works of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, do pick up a copy of our book, Arcimboldo.

Sarah Bell