Great Paintings: Winter by Giuseppe Arcimboldo

If you’re interested in weird and wonderful art, you should look no further than the art of sixteenth century painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Though Arcimboldo was from Italy, he did his most well-known work in the Habsburg courts of Northern Europe. It was here that he began to create his signature composite portraits, pieces of art that were totally unique at the time and remain unparalleled to this day. Winter is one such painting.

According to my research, Winter is part of a series of paintings that Arcimboldo created to celebrate the reign of Emperor Maximilian II while he was living in his court. This series contained four pieces that celebrated the four seasons: Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn. Each piece was one of Arcimboldo’s famous composite paintings, a human face composed of items associated with each season. This series was an instant success among the courtiers, leading Arcimboldo to replicate this triumph by creating copies of the Seasons Series for other aristocrats and by painting more composite portraits.

While the other seasons contain soft, rounded shapes, bright colors, and ripe fruit, Winter is sharp and jagged. His head is a solid piece of weathered wood with a mushroom for a mouth. He is crowned by a tangled mass of ivy and twig hair. In the coldest season of the year, trees are amongst the only living plants in the landscape, replacing the fruit, vegetables, and flowers that dominate the other seasons.

The rough bark replicates wrinkles and lines, making the character of Winter look like an old man. The season of winter is traditionally associated with age and death, making this a natural choice. However, the painting does contain some glimpses of hope and youth. One orange and one lemon hang from Winter’s neck, symbols that spring will one day return; it is a message we can all embrace in these dark days of winter.

Originally published at on December 10, 2020.



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