The first time you see a painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, you probably don’t know what to make of it. It’s clearly some kind of joke, but what kind? When you discover that the artist emulated Leonardo Da Vinci, it seems even more puzzling. In Arcimboldo, 1526–1593: Nature and Fantasy, which runs through January 9, 2011 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, the puzzle of this puzzler in fruits, vegetables, small animals, and sometimes even aquatic life may not be solved, but we get a fuller picture of this strange picture-maker from the past. Arcimboldo loved to create series of works—the elements, even the seasons of the year—that spanned wholes in an assemblage of parts. This man for all seasons now enjoys a new season in modern times, perhaps where he belonged all along.

Although born in Milan in 1527 and a young student in Italy, Arcimboldo found his fortune in Vienna in the Habsburg court. Named court portraitist by Ferdinand I in 1562, Arcimboldo painted his fanciful portraits not only to amuse the royals, but also to symbolize the abundant wealth and political power of the king. Ferdinand I would commission works from his court painter to give as gifts to foreign potentates—strange, takeaway symbols that would leave a lasting impression long after the visitors returned home.

Perhaps the most unforgettable merging of power and produce by Arcimboldo is his portrait of Rudolf II, another Habsburg patron, as the Roman god of the seasons, Vertumnus (shown above). Da Vinci made science “cool” for artists, just as the New World discoveries drove European artists to reexamine the natural world beneath their feet. That rediscovery of nature in every little detail comes across in Arcimboldo’s bold portraits. More than just an optical illusion, his portraits reveal the interconnectedness of life from the smallest creatures to what we like to consider the apex of creation—humanity.

Arcimboldo languished in obscurity for centuries, an oddball that refused to fit any neat category. It took the Surrealists in the early 20th century to embrace Arcimboldo as a predecessor. It was nice that he could finally find “friends,” but even that acceptance denied the conventional aspects of Arcimboldo, namely as a painter serving royal prestige, that might make him more comprehendible. Arcimboldo, 1526–1593: Nature and Fantasy serves the fantasy well, but also shows how Arcimboldo’s art was a natural consequence in many ways of the spirit of the age and the source of his financial support. This strange man for all seasons can belong to our time both as a modern precursor and an inspirational example of an artist that worked in the system yet found an outlet for his humor and florid imagination within it. 

[Image: Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Vertumnus, c. 1590. Oil on panel; framed: 81 x 68 cm (31 7/8 x 26 3/4 in.); unframed: 68 x 56 cm (26 3/4 x 22 1/16 in.); Skokloster Castle, Skokloster.]

[Many thanks to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, for providing me with press materials and the image above from the exhibition Arcimboldo, 1526–1593: Nature and Fantasy, which runs through January 9, 2011.]