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Release Date: September 9, 2010

Arcimboldo's Famous Paintings of Delightfully Bizarre Heads are on View Together for the First Time in the United States at the National Gallery of Art, September 19, 2010–January 9, 2011

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vertumnus, c. 1590 oil on panel Skokloster Castle, Skokloster

Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Vertumnus, c. 1590
oil on panel
Skokloster Castle, Skokloster

Washington, DC—The bizarre yet scientifically accurate composite heads painted by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526–1593) will be exhibited together for the first time in the United States, at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, from September 19, 2010 through January 9, 2011. Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy includes 16 of the most spectacular of these paintings of heads composed of plants, animals, and other objects. They are joined by 32 additional works, such as drawings by Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer, small bronzes, illustrated books and manuscripts, and ceramics, to provide a context for Arcimboldo’s inventions, revealing his debt to established traditions of physiognomic and nature studies.

Arcimboldo, 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy was selected in part from a larger exhibition held at the Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, in 2008. After Washington, the exhibition will be on view at the Palazzo Reale, Milan—Arcimboldo’s birthplace—from February 27 through May 8, 2011.

"From his own time as a court painter in 16th-century Prague and Vienna to his rediscovery by 20th-century surrealists, Arcimboldo has been famous for these extraordinary heads," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "The Gallery is honored to be the only institution in the United States to host this exhibition and we are thankful to the many lenders, both public and private."

Exhibition Support

The exhibition is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The exhibition is made possible by Louisa and Robert Duemling.

It also is sponsored by Altria Group.

Additional support is provided by The Exhibition Circle of the National Gallery of Art.

It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The exhibition is part of ITALY@150, a series of activities in Washington, DC, and throughout the United States, that celebrate the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy and the long-lasting friendship between the two countries.

"Altria and its companies are pleased to partner with the National Gallery of Art to bring the Arcimboldo exhibition to U.S. audiences for the first time. We believe these whimsical works will spark the imagination of, and provide enjoyment for, many thousands of D.C. residents and visitors," said Bruce Gates, senior vice president, government affairs, Altria Group. Philip Morris and Altria Group Inc. have sponsored eight major exhibitions at the Gallery since 1987.

The Exhibition

Painted singly or in a series, the heads are composed of imaginative combinations of fruits, vegetables, flowers, and other objects appropriate to the themes Arcimboldo depicted, such as the Four Seasons and the Four Elements (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water). Highlights of Arcimboldo, 1526–1593: Nature and Fantasy include the complete series of paintings of the Four Seasons (Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter) from the Louvre, two Seasons and two Elements from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, as well as heads portraying various professions constructed from materials that signify those occupations. Also featured are several of the artist’s so-called "reversible" paintings, such as The Vegetable Gardener (c. 1590), where a bowl of vegetables turned upside-down becomes the image of a gardener. In the exhibition space, mirrors are installed beneath these paintings so that visitors can experience the Arcimboldo effect.

Although he worked for some 25 years as a court artist for two emperors, painting portraits and making designs for costumes, pageants, and festivals for his patrons, Arcimboldo is best known for his paintings of composite heads. The meaning of the heads has been much debated. Contemporaries referred to them as scherzi (jokes), as they were intended to be clever and amusing. At the same time they contain serious investigations of nature. In addition, the complex imagery of the heads, the imperial patrons for whom they were made, and the clear propagandistic function they had, in the form of copies disseminated throughout Europe, suggest their role as political allegories.

Providing a context for Arcimboldo’s paintings are Helmet in the Form of a Dolphin Mask (1540/1545) by the Milanese armorer Giovanni Paolo Negroli from the Gallery’s own collection, as well as pieces of colored earthenware with nature motifs by Bernard Palissy. Two groups of drawings, selected from the Gallery’s collection, offer further context: one represents nature studies, like Arcimboldo’s, by artists such as Dürer, Joris Hoefnagel, Hans Hoffmann, and Jacopo Ligozzi; the second presents grotesque heads by Leonardo and his pupil Francesco Melzi, both Arcimboldo’s predecessors in Milan.

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1526–1593)

Giuseppe Arcimboldo was born in Milan in 1526, the son of a painter named Biagio, and was active there before moving to Vienna, the seat of the Holy Roman Empire, in 1562. He was appointed court painter and portraitist to Maximilian II, who became emperor in 1564. After the emperor’s death in 1576, Arcimboldo was retained by Maximilian’s son and successor, Rudolf II. When the imperial residence was moved from Vienna to Prague in 1583, the artist emigrated there as well.

In 1585 he began petitioning to return to his homeland, a request that was granted in 1587. Arcimboldo, then 61 years old, returned to Milan, though he had not yet been released from his service to Rudolf II. The artist continued working on paintings for the emperor as well as on other commissions, and in 1592 Rudolf II appointed him a Palatine count. Arcimboldo died the following year.

Curators and Related Publications

The exhibition is curated by Sylvia Ferino-Pagden, curator of Italian Renaissance painting, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, who organized the previous exhibitions in Paris and Vienna. It is coordinated at the National Gallery of Art by David Alan Brown, curator, and Gretchen Hirschauer, associate curator, both in the department of Italian and Spanish paintings.

The English version of the 320-page exhibition catalogue from Paris and Vienna, edited by Ferino-Pagden and published by Skira, is available for purchase in the Gallery Shops. To order, please visit; call (800) 697-9350 or (202) 842-6002; fax (202) 789-3047; or e-mail [email protected].

General Information

For additional press information please call or send inquiries to:
Department of Communications
National Gallery of Art
2000 South Club Drive
Landover, MD 20785
phone: (202) 842-6353
e-mail: [email protected]
Anabeth Guthrie
Chief of Communications
(202) 842-6804
[email protected]

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Exhibition Press Release

Checklist (PDF 20kb)

Altria Sponsor Statement (PDF 356kb)

Related Activities

Audio: Press Event (27:51 mins.)

Watch a video (14:12 mins.)

In Conversation: Winter (after Arcimboldo) by Philip Haas
Mark Leithauser, senior curator and head of design and installation, National Gallery of Art, and Philip Haas, artist and filmmaker

Arcimboldo, 1526–1593: Nature and Fantasy
David Brown, curator, Italian and Spanish paintings, National Gallery of Art, and Sylvia Ferino-Pagden, curator, Italian Renaissance painting, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna