Ah, the unrivaled genius of Europe's sixteenth-century painters: Leonardo. Michelangelo. Raphael. Arcimboldo. WHO???
What? You never heard of Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526-1593)? That's weird. He was a genius too. Here's a self-portrait:
Born in Milan, he began his painting career in the way that was the norm at that time: focusing on religious subjects, for which he received his first paid commissions.
stained glass, 1549
In 1562, he assumed the prestigious post of court portraitist for the Hapsburg emperor Ferdinand I in Vienna. In 1565 he relocated to Prague to become the official portraitist to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II and his family,
Maximilian II, his wife and three children
and then, after he came to the throne in 1576, Maximilian's son Rudolf II.
Arcimboldo remained a court portraitist until his retirement in 1587 at age 61. And he did the things one would expect for his royal patrons, who had way more money than they knew what to do with. In addition to painting portraits, he designed fanciful sleighs
and costumes for pageants (because he was also the royal Party Planner).
But somewhere along the way, his work started getting a little... unusual. No, a lot unusual. Take, for example, his portraits of some people who weren't members of the royal family:
And then there were other paintings that seemed to be portraits...
until you turned them upside down...
Startling composites featuring aspects of nature were Arcimboldo's speciality. For example, he spent a lot of time meticulously sketching animals.
And this eventually led to his composite portraits of the Elements: Water, Earth, Fire and Air. Here's Earth (the animals that walk on land):
But you haven't even seen his best-known works yet: a series known as The Four Seasons.
So what did everyone make of this weird royal portrait-painter? Did they think he was just nuts? Well, in 1592, the year before Arcimboldo's death, Emperor Rudolf made him a Count, so that probably tells you something. They LOVED him at the palace. The European one-percenters of the sixteenth century, in their constant pursuit of novelty (sound like any one-percenters you know?), became fascinated with the idea of the bizarre, the grotesque, or simply the unusual (no court was complete without its complement of dwarves), and Arcimboldo's more inventive work fit the bill, and then some.
And what is Arcimboldo's legacy in the 21st century? Well, many experts consider him to be the forerunner of 20th-century Surrealism - the spiritual father of Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte.
All in all, not bad for a man who didn't just march to his own drummer - he created his own one-man orchestra.