Thursday, 5 May 2011


'Through the eyes' of

Guiseppe (Joseffi) Arcimboldo, 1527 - 1593


Winter and Spring, 1573, Oil on canvas, each 76 x 64 cm
Musée National du Louvre, Paris

The order of the Seasons is full of symbolical symmetry.
There are always two matching heads in profile, on of them facing left, the other right
 and expressing a special relationship between the seasons they symbolize.

There is an abundance of allegorical and symbolical allusions
which Arcimboldo, as it were, wrote into his paintings and series of paintings.

Spring, 1563 - Oil on oakwood, 66 x 50 cm
 signed in the lower right-hand corner: Guiseppe Arcimboldo. F
Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid

This picture was painted by Arcimboldo for Ferdinand I in 1563, and is thus part of the first known series of the Four Seasons, two of which are in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (Summer and Winter). This painting of Spring may have reached Spain as a gift to Philip II.  The reverse side bears the incomplete inscription: "Spring, accompanied by Air, which....", thus confirming DaCosta Kaufmann's suggestion that the Four Seasons and the Elements formed certain pairs which were linked in a special way. The inscription obviously suggests that Spring and Air belonged together.  It also explains why Arcimboldo depicted those heads in profile:  the members of each pair were meant to face one another. This 1563 series was painted by Arcimboldo after he had "taken a completely new path during his time in Prague", as Geiger puts it, where he "stubbornly persisted in creating a style of his own which had never been seen before and was so unique that he is still famous for it today."


Spring, 1572 - Oil on canvas, 76,6 x 57 cm
Private collection, Berlin

This picture of Spring belongs to the second of four series.
When we compare several paintings of the same theme,
we notice that they are very similar to the first ones that Arcimboldo made,
but never mere copies.  The overall composition was always the same,
but occasionally he changed the format, and also the colour scheme,
though he always preferred a dark background.
Individual shapes were changed with regard to size and colour.
Just as in a musical composition, we can speak of variations on a theme.


Air, undated  -  Oil on canvas, 74,5 x 56 cm
Private collection, Basel

Air, like the Four Seasons and the other three elements, has been depicted in the form of a human head in profile.  To express his ideas on the nature of air, Arcimboldo has populated this picture with a large number of birds.  Most of them have only their heads visible and can hardly be identified, whereas others can be recognized immediately.  The goose, for example, is quite easy to make out, and together with the tail feathers of a rooster gives a vague impression of an ear.  The turkey with its swelled breast is the nose, and a pheasant, hiding partly under the wings of the rooster, provides a goatee beard with his tail feathers, thus decorating the chin of the figure.  The little bird whose eye serves as the pupil of the human head remains a mystery, however, while the upper and lower eye-lid of the head is formed by the open beak of a duck.
Arcimboldo's Four Elements contain some obvious references to the House of Habsburg,
such as the peacock and the eagle, which are both symbols of the dynasty.


Spring, 1573 - Musée National du Louvre, Paris

There is an abundance of allegorical and symbolical allusions
which Arcimboldo, as it were, wrote into his paintings and series of paintings.
His series of Elements and Seasons share several features,
including the number four, and Arcimboldo's colleague Fonteo
revealed some further correspondences in a poem.

Fonteo's comparison of Arcimboldo's Elements and Seasons
is not limited to the features hot/cold and dry/wet
- Air and Spring are both hot and wet -
The following interpretation is based on the world of the ancient gods
and the Renaissance understanding of nature:

Prosperina, the goddess of winter, is a close friend of the god of water, Neptune,
 and so Winter and Water belong together.
The Air of Spring shows up the glowing colours of flowers in blossom.


Spring, undated - Oil on wood, 84 x 57 cm
Bayerische Staatsgemaeldsammlungen, Munich

Guiseppe Arcimboldo

"...perfect in his uniqueness as are only the great".  ANDRE PIEYRE DE MANDIARGUES


 see also post December 2010: OLD MASTERS - A painted Winter

Images from Benedikt Taschen Verlag GmbH
Text: Werner Kriegeskorte
English translation: Hugh Beyer


  1. Ha - wunderbar!
    Liebe Karin,
    du hast mir gerade meine Kunststunden morgen in einer 7. Klasse vorbereitet.
    Ich geh mit den Schülern erst mal für ein Viertelstündchen in den Computerraum zur Internetrecherche und dann machen wir eine Collage!

    Genug alte Garten- und Wohnzeitschriften hab ich ja!

    Danke und liebe Grüße!

  2. Liebe Franka,
    das freut mich aber! Ich kann mir sehr gut vorstellen, dass Deine Schueler Arcimboldo's "Koepfe" interessant und spannend finden.
    Also - viel Spass beim morgigen Kunstunterricht. Schoen zu wissen, dass es diesen noch gibt!

    Lieben Gruss

  3. I like the peony ears the most.

    Wonderful post, Karin. You have a wealth of knowledge!

  4. Dear Karin, Mighty strange yet fascinating. Love the many leaf forms. Great Post.

  5. Very interesting! The artist must have had very deep thoughts.

  6. I've seen these before and they're wonderful. Can you imagine how long one of those pictures took to paint? The detail in them is amazing!

  7. I think there was a post in one of my old Southern Accents and I was so fascinated, you could stare at these for hours..and pick apart all the many details. I can't imagine what he is thinking when he paints and where his mind goes as he started this process.....fascinating isn't it! Beautiful in an unexplainable way.......having one of these on a wall certainly would make a room. Its a real statement piece.

  8. Great post! I'd never seen Air before; extraordinary. They are fascinating; though made up of beauty, they are quite ugly but the artistry is admirable.

  9. Hello,

    In Brussels in the restaurant "La maison du cigne" at " la grand place" you have a hole colection of Guiseppe. Verry nice blogspot.


  10. Truly fascinating Karin Thankyou good to see them again and enjoy all the details and passion
    Fay xx Ill take the collar of daisies x

  11. Hi Karin!
    I have never seen anything like this before! His attention to detail was amazing!!!!!!!Thanks for bringing him to our attention!!!!!Maryanne xo