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. 

1. ARCIMBOLDO EXPLORED HIS STYLE AS A COURT PAINTER. 

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.

2. HIS ROYAL PORTRAITS BUCKED CONVENTION. 

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. 

3. NOT ALL OF HIS PORTRAITS WERE ORGANIC. 

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. 

4. ARCIMBOLDO WAS A MASTER OF CAPRICCIOSA AND SCHERZI. 

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. 

5. ONE PIECE MAY BE THROWING SHADE. 

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. 

6. ARCIMBOLDO TOOK NATURE SERIOUSLY. 

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. 

7. ONE OF HIS SERIES PAID TRIBUTE TO THE ELEMENTS. 

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.  

8. THE HABSBURGS LOVED HIS WHIMSICAL STYLE. 

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.

9. THE PAINTINGS ARE RICH WITH ALLUSIONS AND VISUAL PUNS. 

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. 

10. HIS WORK INSPIRED A ROYAL COSTUME PARTY. 

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. 

11. HE GOT EVEN WACKIER WITH “REVERSIBLES.” 

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.  

12. THESE FLIPS TOOK SOME TRIAL AND ERROR. 

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. 

13. DESPITE THE ROYAL ACCLAIM, HIS FAME FADED. 

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. 

14. SURREALISTS HELPED RESTORE HIS STATURE. 

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.   

15. TODAY HE IS BELOVED AROUND THE WORLD. 

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.

Tim Burton’s Art Exhibition at Las Vegas’s Neon Museum Now Has Tickets On Sale

A Tim Burton sculpture representative of what might be on display at the Neon Museum
A Tim Burton sculpture representative of what might be on display at the Neon Museum
The Vox Agency

Last year, The Neon Museum in Las Vegas announced that it would be hosting an exhibition of fine art by Tim Burton in 2019. Anticipation has been high ever since: The Vegas show will mark the filmmaker's first major art exhibition in the United States since his work was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York a decade ago. Now, tickets for the October event are finally on sale.

Tim Burton is best known as the director of such movies as Batman (1989), Beetlejuice (1988), and Edward Scissorhands (1990), but he got his start as an artist. His distinct drawing style even got him a job at Disney's animation division in the early 1980s.

The Neon Museum exhibition will feature works that have been displayed previously, as well as sculptures and digital installations created specifically for the space. A press release reads: "The presentation of Burton’s art in Las Vegas represents a unique experience where the host institution also serves as creative inspiration. The museum’s distinctive campus will be transformed through the artist’s singular vision for this original exhibition."

Pieces will be displayed at three locations across the museum campus: the outdoor Neon Boneyard (a "graveyard" for old neon signs), the North Gallery, and the City of Las Vegas’s Boneyard Park. In addition to the main show, there will be a separate, special exhibit after dark that combines projection mapping with the site's famous sign collection. As for the content of the artwork, the museum says Burton is looking to both his career history and the museum itself for inspiration. Although the museum wasn't ready to release images of specific artwork that will be featured in the show, they released some representative images.

"Lost Vegas: Tim Burton @ The Neon Museum Presented by the Engelstad Foundation” launches October 15, 2019, and will run through February 15, 2020. Tickets to the primary exhibit cost $30, and entrance to the nighttime spectacle will cost an extra $24. You can preorder tickets to both shows here.

A Tim Burton sculpture representative of what will be on display at the Neon Museum
A Tim Burton sculpture representative of what might be on display at the Neon Museum
The Vox Agency

A Tim Burton sculpture representative of what will be on display at the Neon Museum.
A Tim Burton sculpture representative of what might be on display at the Neon Museum
The Vox Agency

Edward Hopper’s Western Motel Is Being Turned Into a Hotel Room at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Western Motel, 1957, Edward Hopper (American, 1882–1967), oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Bequest of Stephen C. Clark, B.A., 1903. © 2019 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY
Western Motel, 1957, Edward Hopper (American, 1882–1967), oil on canvas. Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Bequest of Stephen C. Clark, B.A., 1903. © 2019 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Some paintings are so good you can’t help but wish you could climb right inside of them and experience the details with all five senses, in all three dimensions. If Edward Hopper’s Western Motel brings about those sorts of feelings for you, now is your chance to live that dream.

As part of an exhibition called “Edward Hopper and the American Hotel,” Artnet News reports that the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) is constructing a real, live motel room modeled on the artwork that you can actually book for a night.

Much like Nighthawks and Hopper's other paintings, 1957’s Western Motel isn’t exactly a warm and cozy depiction of the hospitality industry. The featured room—which is furnished with two sturdy red sofas, a chair, a small table, and a reedy lamp—is so neat it seems almost characterless. A well-dressed woman with impeccable posture perches atop a couch, looking expectant. It evokes the sense of alienation that permeated so many of Hopper’s influential pieces focused on life in the modern world: lonely people hunched over tables and gazing out windows, failing to connect with their surroundings in a way that makes you, the viewer, uncomfortably aware of your own static energy.

While pieces like Western Motel seem to hint that Hopper himself was something of a gloomy introvert, exhibition curator Dr. Leo G. Mazow hopes that "Edward Hopper and the American Hotel" will set the record straight. The exhibition "endeavors to consider hotels, motels, and other transient dwellings as vital subject matter for Hopper and as a framework with which to understand his entire body of work," Mazow stated in a press release.

In addition to 60 of Hopper’s works and another 35 from his contemporaries, the exhibition will also feature diary entries and postcards from Hopper’s wife and fellow artist, Josephine. As the press release explains, these artifacts "humanize the artist and his wife, providing detailed accounts of their travels in their own words and personal responses to the places they visited, their experiences there, and how these trips informed their art."

The "Hopper Hotel Experience" will offer a number of different packages that, in addition to spending a night at the museum in a room modeled after Hopper's painting, will include everything from dinner at Amuse, the VMFA’s fine dining restaurant, to a guided tour of the exhibition with Mazow.

Information on how to book an overnight stay will made available closer to the exhibition's October 26th opening. But you don’t have to commit to a museum sleepover in order to step inside the artwork; you can also just take a walk around it during museum hours.

[h/t Artnet News]

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