15 Strange Facts About Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Unusual Portraits

Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Sixteenth century artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo followed in the footsteps of his father, Biagio, training in stained glass and fresco painting. But it was this imaginative Italian's curious take on portraits—composite heads composed of flowers, fruits, and other inanimate objects—that have defined his legacy. 


Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I first claimed the artist and his talents for Vienna in 1562, where Arcimboldo served as court painter for his son and successor Maximilian II. He continued with the Habsburgs under Maximilian II, and when Rudolf II moved the court from Vienna to Prague, Arcimboldo made the move as well. In honor of Maximilian II, Arcimboldo began experimenting, creating The Four Seasons, a series of portraits in profile that constructed faces out of blooming blossoms, swollen gourds, withered roots, and ripe grain. He also dabbled in interior design and costume creations.


Arcimboldo didn't just personify the seasons with produce. His most famous piece is a portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, who was so fond of having his likeness captured that he contracted several acclaimed artists to do so. Germany's Hans von Aachen presented the emperor with a frilly collar and a generous chin. Dutch sculptor Adrian de Vries made a regal bust of the monarch. Arcimboldo reimagined him as Vertumnus, the Roman God of plant life, building his cheeks with peaches, his neck with chives, and his hair with grapes and grain. 


The Librarian built a scholar out of books. The Waiter constructed a server out of barrels and bottles. The Jurist utilized books, a chicken carcass, and a bit of fish. 


These words translate loosely to whimsical and games. The artist's mosaic masterpieces were intended to be playful, entertaining, and humorous, sometimes at others' expense. 


Art historians suspect The Jurist is a depiction of Maximilian's duplicitous vice-chancellor, Ulrich Zasius. Rather than a face radiant with natural beauty and color, the two-faced Zasius is constructed out of mud-colored plucked poultry and fecund fish, clearly illustrating Arcimboldo's disdain. 


Arcimboldo’s works may be playful, but he and his contemporaries were fascinated by the beauty and grotesqueness that could be found in the natural world. His dedicated depiction of flora and fauna down to the finest details [PDFis a major part of why the composite heads are still marveled over centuries later. 


Four Elements offered surreal portraits made up of elegant animals and man made luxury. Air soars with a flock of birds, including an owl, a rooster, a parrot, and a peacock. Water contains a string of pearls and a coral crown laced around a swimming collection of fish, sharks, squids, sea turtles, and crustaceans. Earth is made of mammals, like elephants, deer, predatory cats, a wild boar, rabbit, and lamb. Lastly, Fire shimmers with sparks, flames, candles, lamps, and glistening gold and guns.  


Though royal portraits of the time were intended to idealize their subjects, the Habsburgs adored Arcimboldo's inventive renderings. Their court was known for welcoming intellectuals and encouraging avant-garde art. Arcimboldo happily worked for the family for more than 25 years and would continue to accept commissions even after moving back to his homeland in Milan.


Summer has an ear of corn for an ear. Winter includes a cloak with a monogrammed M, referring to Emperor Maximilian, who owned a similar garment. Similarly, Fire includes fire strikers, a symbol of the Habsburg family, and Earth's lion skin cloak harkens to Hercules, whom the royal clan liked to claim as an ancestor. 


In 1571, Maximilian requested Arcimboldo arrange a festival in which the royals and their fancy friends might masquerade as the elements and the seasons. It's likely the painter's costuming ambitions were given a fantastic outlet at the festivities, where life reflected art (which reflected life): Maximilian attended as Arcimboldo's Winter. 


Public Domain

These paintings took playfulness to a new level by flipping them literally on their heads. At first glance, these pieces look like a still life, a bowl of vegetables for instance. But linger on their legumes and you'll see a face, upside down, with a bowl as a hat.  


Art historians believed that Arcimboldo painted these pieces as still life, right side up. Then he would turn them to see their faces and adjust accordingly. X-rays of the canvases reveal that this required some shifting of positions and repainting of fruit to get everything just right. 


For decades, Arcimboldo was well known and admired among the elite. Yet following his death in 1593, these incredible paintings were largely forgotten for centuries. 


Artists like Salvador Dali have cited the groundbreaking painter's composite heads as a major source of inspiration. But it was Museum of Modern Art director Alfred H. Barr's inclusion of his works in the 1930s exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism that re-introduced the world to Arcimboldo's originality and influence [PDF]. Retroactively, art historians dubbed the Renaissance Mannerist the grandfather of Surrealism.   


Arcimboldo’s works once again enjoy widespread acclaim. Vertumnus is on display in Sweden's Skokloster Castle along with The Librarian (although testing in 2011 [PDF] revealed that The Librarian might be a later copy). Spring belongs to Madrid's Museo de la Real Academia de San Fernando, while the Louvre in Paris displays Autumn and Winter. Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna boasts Summer, Fire and Water. Italy's Museo Civico holds The Vegetable Bowl (also known as The Gardener), and Four Seasons in One Head calls the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. home.

9 Facts About Vincent Van Gogh

A self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh is displayed on a screen in Rome in 2016
A self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh is displayed on a screen in Rome in 2016

Born on March 30, 1853, in Zundert, Netherlands, Vincent van Gogh came to art relatively late, only deciding on it as a career at the age of 27. Now his post-Impressionist paintings of sunflowers, night skies, and the landscapes and people of Provence in southern France are among the most recognizable artworks in the world. But mental health issues, a lack of fame during his lifetime, and the infamous moment his ear was cut with a razor have made his story a compelling, complex narrative. Here are nine facts about the celebrated Dutch artist.

  1. Vincent van Gogh was an art dealer before he was an artist.

Before becoming an artist, Vincent van Gogh joined the art firm Goupil & Cie in The Hague in 1869 at the age of 16. In 1873, he was sent to London to work for the firm. His brother, Theo, worked for the same company in Brussels. While Theo thrived, Vincent struggled as an art dealer, and cared little for the commercial side of art. In 1876, he was fired. He then did some teaching and tried for a career as a preacher, like his father, but his first attempt at missionary work in a Belgian mining village was a failure. After six months, he'd made so little headway the evangelical committee that had sponsored him decided that he was unfit for the work.

  1. Vincent van Gogh was largely self-taught.

Vincent van Gogh at the age of 19
Vincent van Gogh at the age of 19
J.M.W. de Louw, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Although van Gogh had short stints at art academies in Brussels and Antwerp, it wasn't a good fit—the teachers didn't like his style, and he didn't appreciate their traditional teaching methods. Over three months in Paris in 1886, artist Fernand Cormon mentored van Gogh in sketching studies of models. These brief experiences were the bulk of his art education. Instead, he focused on training himself: Early in his career, he created hundreds of drawings to play with ideas and develop his skills. He also spent hours studying drawing manuals and copying prints, including those of work by Delacroix and Rembrandt, to master his sketching technique.

  1. Most of van Gogh’s work was made in a single decade.

Van Gogh’s artistic career only spanned from 1880 to 1890. In that one decade, he created more than 2000 drawings, paintings, watercolors, and sketches. In the last two months of his life, while he was settled in Auvers-sur-Oise, he was prolific, making about a painting a day.

  1. Van Gogh only signed his first name.

Despite his late start as an artist, van Gogh was confident in his brand, and signed his paintings just “Vincent.” He may have chosen this shortened name because he knew his surname was difficult to pronounce (most people still don't give it the full "vun KHOKH" Dutch pronunciation). Or, he may have been inspired by his Dutch hero Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, who similarly only signed his first name.

  1. Japan inspired van Gogh as much as Provence did.

While living in Paris from 1886 to 1888, van Gogh acquired a collection of Japanese ukiyo-e prints, which influenced the aesthetics of his paintings. (A Japanese woodblock print of geishas appears in his 1889 Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear.) When he arrived in Provence and witnessed the weathered trees and soft light of Arles, he wrote to his brother Theo: "My dear brother, you know, I feel I’m in Japan." The colors in the paintings he created in Provence, particularly the blues, purples, and yellows, reflected the dominant palette of Japanese prints of the time. He also adopted the skewed perspectives—such as in the 1888 The Bedroom—and the diagonal, streaking rain that he observed in Japanese prints. Although he never made it to Japan, his idealized vision of the country infused his early depictions of the south of France.

  1. Van Gogh's paintings today don't always look the way he intended.

Two of Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' paintings hanging side by side on display in London
Two of Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' paintings hanging side by side on display in London
Mary Turner/Getty Images

Synthetic paint tubes (a new invention dating to 1841) were increasingly available to artists in the 19th century, and van Gogh mixed their vivid hues with natural pigments. The lead-based chrome yellow gave his sunflowers their lively glow, while red made from cochineal insects were used as a warm texture in several paintings. However, his experimentation with novel colors means we sometimes don't see his paintings as he intended. The bright red geranium lake has faded from his wheat fields; a violet on the walls of the 1888 The Bedroom turned to blue as the red in the pigment dissipated.

  1. There’s much debate around the mutilation of van Gogh's ear.

One of the most well-known incidents in van Gogh's life was when he cut off his own ear on December 23, 1888, in Arles. How much he sliced off, and the circumstances of the mutilation, are still under debate. Some historians have posited that it was after a quarrel with fellow painter Paul Gauguin, as their friendship had rapidly deteriorated despite van Gogh’s hopes that they could form something of an artist community in Arles. Others have theorized that the act was in reaction to news that his beloved brother Theo was going to marry. By some reports it was just the earlobe, yet a sketch by Dr. Félix Rey, the physician who treated him, shows the whole ear being severed. Popular lore is that he presented the mangled flesh to a prostitute, but new research suggests it was a local farmer's daughter working as a maid in a brothel who was the unlucky recipient.

  1. Van Gogh's most famous artwork was painted in an asylum.

"This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big," Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in June 1889. Although he didn’t include it in The Starry Night which he painted that year, the window he described was iron-barred and looked out from the Saint-Paul de Mausole asylum in southern France. He voluntarily admitted himself into the asylum on May 8, 1889. Created during this productive yet troubled time in van Gogh's life, the nocturnal tableau of curling pigment over a small village (which van Gogh largely imagined, with a church spire akin to those in his home country) is arguably his most famous work. It draws daily crowds in its current home, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

  1. Van Gogh's success was posthumous.

Vincent Van Gogh's gravestone in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village north of Paris
Vincent Van Gogh's gravestone in Auvers-sur-Oise, a small village north of Paris

Two days after sustaining a self-inflicted gunshot wound, Vincent van Gogh died on July 29, 1890. Thanks to his constant correspondence with his brother Theo, later historians were able to reconstruct his biography, and recognize the essential support that his brother offered to Vincent. He had little commercial or critical success in his lifetime; the lore that he sold one painting while alive isn't completely true, but isn't that far off. (He sold at least two.)

But after his death, his star rose, helped significantly by his sister-in-law Jo van Gogh-Bonger. After Theo died in 1891, she inherited heaps of Vincent's art, and spent years organizing exhibitions, promoting his work across Western Europe, and getting his pieces in public art collections. In 1905, thanks to her efforts, the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam hosted a retrospective. Now Vincent van Gogh exhibitions are blockbusters around the world. In 1990, his Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for $82.5 million at Christie's, setting a new record for a single painting.

A Resin-Preserved KFC Drumstick Can Be Yours for $100

Kentucky for Kentucky
Kentucky for Kentucky

Many devoted KFC fans love the chain's crispy fried chicken for its signature taste and mouthwatering aroma. If you just love the way the chicken looks, now you can keep it on your shelf to admire forever. As Food & Wine reports, Kentucky for Kentucky is selling whole KFC drumsticks encapsulated in resin for $100.

Kentucky for Kentucky, an independent organization that promotes the Bluegrass State, unveiled the jars of "Chick-Infinity" on its website earlier in June. The chicken pieces are authentic Colonel's original recipe drumsticks sourced from a KFC restaurant in Coal Run, Kentucky. While they were at their golden-brown peak, Kentucky artist Coleman Larkin submerged them in 16-ounce Mason jars filled with clear resin "with all the care of a Southern mamaw putting up greasy beans for the winter." 

KFC drumstick in a jar.
Kentucky for Kentucky

The project, part of Larkin's Dixieland Preserves line of Southern-themed resin encapsulations (which also includes the preserved poop of a Kentucky Derby winner), aims to present the iconic Kentucky product in a new way. "Honestly, is there anything better than biting into a warm, crispy KFC drumstick after a day at the lake?" Kentucky for Kentucky writes in a blog post, "we wanted to capture that feeling in a product that didn’t disappear into a pile of bones as soon as it’s opened."

Only 50 of the finger-licking artworks were created, and at $100 a piece, they're worth the price of several KFC family buckets. You can grab one while they're still available from the Kentucky for Kentucky online store.

[h/t Food & Wine]