The Viennese royalty must have had a sense of humor. In 1562, Giuseppe Arcimboldo became the court portraitist, a position of honor and dignity, for Ferdinand the First. Generations of court painters had set the bar for stiff formal portraits of kings and dignitaries, and along comes Giuseppe painting everyone as piles of fruit.
But the Hapsburg court was as different as Giuseppe’s surreal portraits — a hotbed of ambition, drawing intellectuals and inventors. Giuseppe himself left Milan, and proceeded to invent a type of harpsichord, design costumes and write poetry for the royals. While he painted a number of classical portraits, it was certainly his constructions that captured the imagination of the court. Giuseppe took care to portray his subjects in forms that spoke to their interests. “The Librarian” is thought to depict Wolfgang Lazius, a historian — and the “Four Seasons” were meant to show the harmony and plenty of the Hapsburg empire.
Was Giuseppe Arcimboldo ahead of his time? Oddly, no — his work was provocative and well-recieved in his own time, but his influence has persisted to this day. From the surrealists’ personification of objects to the composite photographs overused by modern advertising, Guiseppe taught us to love the double-take.