Giuseppe Arcimboldo was an Italian painter who is best known for his inventive portrait heads made entirely of fruits, herbs, flowers, fish, and books in the 16th century. The still-life portraits were explicitly meant to entertain the court, but critics have speculated about how seriously they interacted with Renaissance Neo-Platonism or other intellectual trends of the time (Selvin and Selvin). He worked as a traditional court painter in Vienna and Prague, painting portraits for three Holy Roman Emperors as well as religious subjects and, among other things, a series of colored sketches of exotic animals in the imperial menagerie. He was known for his grotesque symbolical compositions of inanimate objects organized into human shapes.
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Summer by Giuseppe Arcimboldo is part of a series celebrating the four seasons. Each one is symbolized by an unexpected and evocative juxtaposition of fruits and items associated with that season. Arcimboldo was enamored with this subject and often painted themed groups of paintings (MasterClass). The elements on the image are in complete harmony, specifically selected to comply with the season.
The painting was originally a part of a Four Seasons collection. Summer is the series’ only dated picture, with the year 1563. For the first time, Arcimboldo creates heads out of a variety of things, the collection of which gives the allegory significance. The complexity and creativity of the compositional process with which the painter applies the themes in the picture-puzzles are a rather personal achievement, and the many later copies serve to show Arcimboldo’s true originality in their shortcomings and simplifications.
Arcimboldo fills the paintings with dense details that come together harmoniously to create a human figure in this groundbreaking work. The play of the picture, the tracing of the extended metaphor along the surface of the work, which makes us smile and laugh, occurs through “condensation, displacement, and indirect representation” (Selvin and Selvin). Many of these elements can be found, for example, in the composition of Summer.
The visual elements transmit the essence of each season to the viewer through the composition’s dynamic and oversaturated elements. The female profile shines in the center of the black fill because the canvas is dominated by warm and saturated colors that equate to summertime. Each fruit is traced with great care and realism, and the use of correctly placed shadows and glare creates a powerful effect of picture volume, which is enhanced by the use of a dark background (Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien). The simple, black backdrop Arcimboldo uses emphasizes the woman’s identity while also emphasizing her character’s fantasy.
Arcimboldo depicted the oil on wood painting in a visual texture, mimicking natural textures to create the illusion of a 3-D surface. The fruits are defined as accurate with precise details and textures, which appear as factual. In Summer, Arcimboldo produces the illusion of three-dimensional structure. The use of textures is mixed, where a rough coat of woven overlaps with the soft surface of the collar. The painter persuades the audience that the woman in the painting is real in three dimensions by carefully varying value, especially in shading (the use of darker colors to create the illusion of shadows).
Surrealists admired Arcimboldo’s paintings because they were constantly on the lookout for hallucinatory visionaries that might be considered their forerunners. The imaginative use of shapes that combine to form individuals has sparked speculation that his proclivity to see faces in arranged objects was due to mental illness. Nonetheless, Arcimboldo’s art is distinguished by his singular vision and ability to create characters out of ordinary things.
Principle of Design
The painting is composed of many detailed elements, each adding to the overall composition. In the portrait of Summer, Arcimboldo strays away from the naturalistic representation of the Renaissance and explores the construction of design by rendering her from a jumble of fruits, vegetables, plants, and flowers. Observing the painting, many elements deserve to be highlighted. Though, in terms of scaling, the painter does not use realistic sizes of the fruits and vegetables. Their comparative sizes are far from natural, and as depicted for one example, he changed the dimensions of pears in the eyes to match the composition.
The Summer’s plump face is shaped like the voluptuous curves of perfectly ripe fruits and vegetables, and her shapely body reflects this. The cheek and neck area of Summer’s profile bust is made up of peach, quince, garlic, white onions, yellow beets, and white eggplant. The mouth and lips are depicted as cherries, and the open peapod inside mimics a row of teeth. The nose is a cucumber, and the chin is a peach, with a cherry between two small pears for an eye. The brow bulge is made of onions.
Three hazelnuts in their covers adorn the shrine, and a dried corncob sits in the place of the ear. A head covering, which is essentially a cap or hat made of fruit and vegetables bedded in greenery and from which emerge oat spikes resembling hat feathers, completes the outfit. A single artichoke is woven into the clothing in woven straw, and the woven signature and date are sophisticatedly incorporated into the composition as jewelry. The artist left his signature on the jacket collar and the year of the painting on a figure’s shoulder, which is an unusual place to do it.
Each item, which Arcimboldo included in the painting, correlates and intertwines with each other making up a composition. The unity of the elements is undeniable, as they are all composed to depict a face of a woman, therefore uniting in one coherent picture. In terms of subordination, the background of the composition is purposefully darkened to bring attention to the focal point – the woman (Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien). The painter wanted to turn all of the attention to the protagonist, not distracting the audience with other background elements.
In many aspects, the style of Arcimboldo refers to the mannerism art, which emerged during the Renaissance, where rather than the balance and consistency of earlier Renaissance paintings, there is tension and instability in the composition. With the assemblage theme of fruits and vegetables, his style is considered Mannerist (MasterClass). The artworks of Arcimboldo have also been applied to Mannerism in terms of the humor it conveys to audiences. Arcimboldo’s paintings are noted for their attention to nature and the idea of a “monstrous presence” from a stylistic standpoint.
In conclusion, Giuseppe Arcimboldo was the King of Mannerism, with his mastery ability for constructing human portraits using shapes and objects. Arcimboldo’s paintings were intricate compositions full of paradoxes and allegory. His works, which have primarily been interpreted in terms of the evolution of human thought, have sparked a great deal of debate and, as a result, a wide range of approaches and ideas. Arcimboldo’s artwork is notable for the way he took the concept of the human-natural world parallel to new heights. These paintings reflected a Renaissance mind’s obsession with riddles, puzzles, and the strange.
Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien. “Summer – Giuseppe Arcimboldo.” Google Arts & Culture. Web.
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MasterClass. Giuseppe Arcimboldo: 3 Characteristics of Arcimboldo’s Art. 2021. Web.
Selvin, Claire, and Claire Selvin. “How Giuseppe Arcimboldo Reimagined Portraiture in 16th-Century Europe.” ARTnews. 2020. Web.