In the 16th Century, People Went Crazy for Portraits Made Up of Fruits and Veggies
At first glance the portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II seems like just an oddly painted portrait until your eyes begin to focus and you realize the face actually made up of a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables. The nose is a pear. The forehead is a gourd. The ear is an ear of corn. What the heck is going on here?
This fanciful painting, and many others, are the work of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a painter from Milan, Italy, born around 1526, who was employed as court artist to Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I at the Hapsburg Court in Vienna beginning in 1562. He would later serve Ferdinand’s son, Maximilian II, and grandson, Rudolf II at the Hapsburg court in Prague. The strange portrait of Rudolf II, painted in 1591, is even more shocking when you realize it’s of an autocratic emperor from an incredibly powerful family.
But Rudolf II was apparently used to Arcimboldo’s wacky paintings—and since the artist portrayed the emperor as Vertumnus, the Roman god of seasons, maybe he was flattered as well. Either way, Arcimboldo made a career out of these types of portraits. In fact. He was quite popular with the Royal set; King Augustus of Saxony commissioned a work from Arcimboldo after seeing his paintings in the 1570s. Like today, the rich and famous help define what’s hot and trendy so it wasn’t long before there were other artists following Arcimboldo’s lead. Like knock off Prada and Gucci handbags, a legion of imitators produced fruit and veggie portraits for folks aspiring to be like the royals. These lesser known—and less talented—artists are today simply billed in the art world as “followers of Giuseppe Arcimboldo.”
Arcimboldo didn’t just paint strange portraits incorporating fruits and vegetables. He also worked with seafood, meat, flowers, and books, among other common objects. He served the Hapsburgs for 25 years before returning to Milan, where he died in 1593. It would take 20th century artists, specifically the Surrealists, to help revive interest in and fully appreciate Arcimboldo’s strange and beautiful paintings.