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Arcimboldo's Gift: The Fantastical Beginnings of His Composite Portraits

The great painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo created numerous pieces in his time at the courts of his patrons Maxmilian I and Rudolf II, but left a legacy primarily in a single, inventive category of painting: composite portraits. Painstakingly composed of individual studies of nature and living things that together create the human form, Arcimboldo’s composite heads created a new intersection between the scientific study of naturalia and the age-old practice of painting the human figure. Like the kunstkammers and wunderkammers of the time, Arcimboldo's paintings managed to combine the natural, the artificial and the fantastical in singular compositions that did not have a contemporary comparison. Since their conception, Arcimboldo’s composite portraits have captivated, amused and puzzled centuries of viewers.

Arcimboldo’s earliest composite paintings date back to two series completed in the 1560s: Four Seasons, finished in 1563, and Four Elements, finished in 1566. Four Seasons represents Arcimboldo’s first foray into composite portraits. Comprised of four separate paintings, each image represents either a man or woman composed of the various crops available during that season. Four Elements, like Four Seasons, draws its inspiration from a similar theme. Rather than finding its pieces in the earth, however, Arcimboldo draws from the animal world to create its series of figures.

While at first glance the only relation between these two series is in their conception as composite portraits, there is more to their interaction and presentation as one. In 1569, the two series, accompanied by a poem composed by G.B. Fonteo, were given as a gift to Arcimboldo’s patron, the Hapsburg emperor Maximilian II. Through this gift, the two series interact not only with the viewer, but also with each other. Portraits that previously existed as singular entities in their own set can now be presented as pairs that cross series, genders, elements, seasons and placement. Presented as the sole focus of an exhibition for the first time, this is Arcimboldo’s Gift.


Casey Federbusch