Giuseppe Arcimboldo

Posted by Ellen

It’s a little hard to take at first, but keep looking till you see the cute little baby seal above the ear with the pearl earring. And the grouchy-looking turtle underneath the necklace.

And look at all the different kinds of hair on this person's head—coral hair and snake hair and claw hair and tentacle hair and even crawfish and seahorse and water-spout hair.

This is “Water,” painted in 1566 by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, part of a series of four portraits representing the elements. The subject of this portrait is approximately a human being, perhaps a woman, but quite grotesque, maybe because Arcimboldo had studied under Leonardo da Vinci, who loved to sketch dramatically ugly-looking people. As for the critters in the picture—there are more than sixty species, we’re told—they are here in true-to-life detail because Arcimboldo in his day job was court painter for Emperor Maximilian II in Vienna and Prague; his duties included painting natural specimens collected by the Hapsburgs, and his perks included access to the royal library.

Why would a court painter in the sixteenth century paint a person made out of an octopus, a frog, two eels, a stingray, a catfish, a starfish, and etc., etc., etc.? The short answer must be: because the emperor liked paintings like that. Apparently, Maximilian even liked an Arcimboldo portrait of the emperor’s son made out of fruit and vegetables.

And Maximilian wasn’t his only fan. Almost a hundred years later, when Queen Christina of Sweden raided Prague during the Thirty Years War, she specifically ordered her army to steal all the Arcimboldos in the Hapsburg collections and ship them to her in Stockholm. Many of the portraits—people made from chickens and pumpkins and grapes and turnips, a librarian with arms made of the spines of books, a lawyer with a shirt made of lawsuits and a mouth of fish lips—remain in Sweden to this day.