A Painting a Day: Arcimboldo's Spring (1573)


Today's painting not only celebrates spring but embodies the very nature of an artistic rebirth: Giuseppe Arcimboldo's Spring (1573), from his series of The Four Seasons. Arcimboldo was a MIlanese painter who also designed costumes and other decorations, skills which served him well in his portrait painting. Rather than simply painting people as they were, he conceived the idea of allegorical portraits--that is, of using unrelated objects to create an impression of the subject. In this way, he anticipated both the Impressionists and the Surrealists by a good 300-odd years. His hilarious and delightful paintings use flowers, trees, fruits, vegetables, and even household objects to embody portraits of Renaissance men and women. Amazingly, the people still emerge boldly from the artifice, yet the closer you examine it, the more you see the theme inside the portrait.
In Spring, we have a vernal portrait of a beautiful young woman, with literal roses in her cheeks. Her hair is festooned with flowers and weeds of all varieties, varied by color and size for artistic effect (including the white lily at the very back of her head, like a feather sticking out of her cap). Amazingly, every single detail of her face, from her eyes, teeth, lips, and even eyebrows are composed of flora large and small. Note how detailed each one is, as if they have nothing to do with the larger portrait, but exist only for themselves (or for inclusion in a textbook). Arcimboldo lived during the height of the Renaissance, and his art undoubtedly reflects the urge to explore and classify the natural world. A botanist could have a field day naming every variety on display, of which I can only identify a handful.
However, this painting is ultimately an allegory, which was the literary form most beloved of the ancients. Naturally, it makes sense to depict a young woman as blossoming spring flowers, as she is just coming into bud herself. The entire picture is full of life and vitality, so overgrown that even the edges are framed by flowers--perhaps on the verge of forming a companion for this woman. Yet there is a hint of the famous "memento mori" (remember your mortality) in this portrait, since flowers can only bloom a short time before they fade to their doom. At the height of her youth and beauty, she can only look forward to a quick decline into autumnal old age. As Robert Herrick wrote in his famous 17th century poem, "To the Virgins, To Make Much of Time",
"Gather ye rosbeuds while ye may
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
Only painting can grant the spring immortality--the rest of us have to spend it while we have it. As an artist, having painted woman after woman at the height of her beauty, Arcimboldo knew this lesson well. But the young ones never listen...

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