Felix University: Episode 1
Look at this painting. When do you think it was created?
It seems grotesque. Ugly. Almost painful to the eyes. So when do you think it was created? Perhaps it was the 1800s? The early 1900s? Maybe even a 1700s work, shockingly?
In an era when artists began looking more and more towards the past to find balance and clarity, Giuseppe Arcimboldo embraced the exact opposite. He leaned into the weird, the odd and some might even say the surreal
Is it fair to call Arcimboldo a proto-surrealist? I say so. But first, to understand his art more we have to take a deeper dive into the person himself. Who was he? How did he get the chance to make this sort of art? And how did others see him at the time? Let’s take a look
Part 1: Beginnings
Giuseppe Arcimboldo was born the son of a painter. From all accounts, not a particularly prominent or important painter, but one who had steady work and a steady life regardless. His grand uncle meanwhile held the prestigious position of the Archbishop of Milan, and as such it’s likely that Giuseppe met with quite a few prominent figures in his youth. This, along with painting training by his father would clearly influence the path he would take in life.
Like his father, Giuseppe started out doing stained glass works In fact, some records of the Milan Cathedral tell us that his father and him worked together on several works. Some of them still exist today! Here’s an example of a stained glass window which Giuseppe executed.
As one can see, the work is admirable and we see some of the characteristics that make his later portraits so fascinating. Giuseppe began doing stained glass works at 21 and it was only until he turned 35 that he decided he needed a change. One can imagine that after so long doing stained glass work with consistently similar themes, he needed something else. A new place.
That place was…..
Part 2: A Royal Court?
“This is a painter with a rare talent, who is also extremely knowledgeable in other disciplines; and having proved his worth both as an artist and as a bizarre painter, not only in his own country but also abroad, he has been given the highest praise, in that word of his fame has reached the Emperor’s court in Germany.”
Now, what kind of art could a guy who looks like this possibly want?
You might imagine that the Holy Roman Emperor would want something serious. Some propaganda, scenes of triumph, the usual. This is going to be another one of those “court painter vs monarch stories”, isn’t it? Well, let’s see the first project that Giuseppe gave him*
*One does has to note that technically Giuseppe began as a court painter to Ferdinand II, albeit for two years. However Maximillian II from what I have researched is absolutely the dominant influence
The Hapsburgs didn’t like the portraits. They loved them. Maximillian II had a second set of the portraits created (which is how we actually have most of these). But most of all, and this is actually real: Arcimboldo directed a festival where the members of the court dressed up as the season elements. Maximillian himself chose to dress as Winter. Imagine that. Your patron loves your work so much that he gets into a ridiculous costume just as a sign of appreciation.
It’s easy to see why though. The level of detail on these works is simply astounding. They’re so full of visual puns and imperial references. For instance, look how Winter has a cloak with an M placed on it (for Maximillian) or how Autumn is made up of the fruits of the harvest.
Plus you know, the implication that your royal family rules over the literal seasons probably gives you some points.
“This noble and inspired man fashioned a great number of rare and delicate works of art which caused considerable amazement among all the illustrious noblemen who used to congregate there, and his lord and master was very pleased with him.”
Arcimboldo excelled at the court. In fact, he worked at the court for 26 years until he retired. The Hapsburgs reveled in imaginative, avant garde works and Arcimboldo was only too eager to indulge them.
I do get the sense that some of his works had double meanings. Take this one for example. To a casual onlooker or the royal family, it seems just like a silly painting. Just a librarian made of books, ha! But examining int on a different level, it seems clear to me how cutting this is. It’s a mockery of those who own books simply to brag about owning them, instead of actually reading them evidently. Being around so many high class people, Arcimboldo must have gained a huge awareness of these people.
From all accounts, Arcimboldo had a huge influence in all matters of the court, not just in painting. He was a decorator, costume designer, planner, water engineer, architect and more. In a sense, Arcimboldo served as an important advisor to Maximillian II, which is incredible. He did things like expand Ferdinand I’s cabinent of curiousities which later turned into the Kunstkammer Vienna Museum. Arcimboldo planned out the wedding and coronation of Maximillian’s successor, Rudolf II, Maximillian obviously rewarded him with a comfortable salary and lavish titles.
The Final Period: Arcimboldo the Biologist
The late period is defined by fish, flowers and some of the greatest portraits which I have ever seen.
Luckily for Arcimboldo, Rudolph II was also into paintings and fine arts. But he let his other interests creep in.
See, Rudolph the II absolutely loved exotic things. Precious stones, mummies, stuffed birds, gigantic fish and more. He would use and weild his power to discover and bring back the odd. Arcimboldo, ever the opportunist catered to the person paying him his salary.
I adore this work. Rudolph wanted to be an Emperor at the intersection of nature, art and science so Arcimboldo painted him as all three. Each flower, each fruit, or leaf is from an identifiable species in Rudolph’s collection. A lot of these specific species are from the New World too, so Arcimboldo is saying “Hey, Rudolph isn’t just a master of the Old World, but of the New World too!” The corn is a clear indication of that. There’s also the title, Verumnus. The God of Seasons. So hey, Arcimboldo is declaring Rudolph to be the master of seasons and change as well! Good for him.
The End and Legacy
There’s so much more I could get into but I need to wrap this up eventually. In 1592, Arcimboldo left the Hapsburg service at last to return to Milan. After so long, his time at the court was over. He had already been granted permission to return to Milan in 1587 but occasionally returned back to court to make stuff like Vertumnus. Basically, he was a freelancer from 1587 to 1592 if that makes any sense. In any case, Rudolph treasured his beloved court artist so much that he awarded him the prestigious title of Count Palatine and given 1500 Rhenish guilders for being such an influential painter in the court.
Finally, at the age of 67 on July 11, 1593 Giuseppe Arcimboldo died in Milan.
Unfortunately for him, Rudolph II loved art but was terrible at ruling. Sweden shortly after invaded Prague. Many of Arcimboldo’s works were taken from Rudolph’s collections and most likely destroyed or lost to eh mists of time. We only have 26 confirmed paintings by him now.
And though he was adored and praised by the contemporaries of his time, he became an obscure figure in the centuries to come….
Until the 20th Century. You have Arcimboldo to thank for serving as an inspiration for such surrealists like Dali.
So in the end, Arcimboldo’s genius has been recognized once again as it should. He was one of the greatest Mannerists of his time, a brilliant portraitist and a forward thinker who saw the future of surrealism. His imagination and vision deserve to celebrated now and for all time. I leave you with a final painting and allow you to draw your own conclusions on what it means.