Arcimboldo self-portrait


(Written by Nathanael Roesch, History of Art Graduate Student)

Making food his subject, or perhaps more accurately, making his subjects out of the raw ingredients that might have otherwise contributed to an elaborate feast, Giuseppe Arcimboldo in the 16th century created a series of humorous and engaging portraits at the court of the Austrian Habsburgs. Alternately seen as a pile of precariously stacked, naturalistically painted fruits and vegetables or as an inventive and playful portrait, these so-called “composite heads” have received not only the encomiums of his imperial patrons but the admiration of modern viewers, including the accolades of the Surrealists in the first half of the 20th century and a devoted study by the French theorist Roland Barthes in the second.

When creating a work such as Summer (1563), from his portrait series of the four seasons,  Arcimboldo relied entirely on the produce and vegetation associated with that season to personify his sitter—thus, the figure has a pickle for a nose, a cherry for an eye, and a pod of peas for teeth. In the case of Water (1566), from the artist’s series of the four elements, Arcimboldo humorously painted an arrangement of 62 different species of marine life that, when seen from a distance, cohere into a what can only be described as a rather unflattering portrait of a Renaissance lady. Never simply a grouping of plant or animal life and yet never completely mistaken for the portrait of an actual sitter, Arcimboldo’s composite head portraits confront viewers with a visual game, employing foodstuffs as visual metaphors that, to this day, entice and intrigue viewers hungry for an explanation of their meaning.