Arcimboldo, Giuseppe (1526-1593)
The four seasons, © Musée du Louvre/A. Dequier – M. Bard
Series of four paintings (R.F. 1964-30 to 33) representing the Seasons, most probably commissioned in 1573 by Emperor Maximilian II of Habsburg to be offered to the Elector Augustus of Saxony, Dresden (cited in 1629 by Hainoffer and in 1671). The series may have been distracted from the Dresden collections in the 19th century. – P. Montheillet, expert, Lyon, around 1950 (oral communication from Pierre Montheillet reported by Jacques Foucart on 28/9/1998: “sold by a second-hand dealer who had found them in a pavilion to be destroyed”); Neger, art dealer (quoted in 1957); acquired from the latter, 1964.
A gift for the Elector of Saxony
The history of the Four Seasons of the Louvre Museum could be traced thanks to two clues: the crossed swords of Meissen, the coat of arms of Saxony appearing on the Winter’s coat, and the date of 1573 inscribed on the shoulder of the Summer, under the artist’s signature. Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann linked these data to a note dated July 28, 1574, in the imperial court payment registers, which records a payment of sixty-five gulden to Arcimboldo for paintings commissioned by Emperor Maximilian II (1527 -1576) for the Elector Augustus of Saxony (1526-1586). The relative imprecision of this document is fortunately compensated by the inventories of the Kunstkammer of Dresden from 1595 and 1610 which include several compositions by Arcimboldo including the Four Seasons. In 1629, the traveler Philipp Hainhofer also noticed them, as did Tobias Teubel in 1683. After this date, there is no longer any trace of the paintings which were possibly removed from the Dresden collections in the 19th century. DaCosta Kaufmann has clearly exposed the political circumstances in which Arcimboldo‘s Seasons were offered to Augustus of Saxony. In 1570 and 1573, this Protestant prince stayed at the Catholic court of the emperor, in order to defend his position as Elector against the claims of his cousin Johan Wilhelm of Saxe-Weimar. For his part, Maximilian II, anxious to balance the Catholic and Protestant forces within his empire, favored relations with this sovereign who also supported in 1573 the election of his son Rudolph as King of the Romans.
Arcimboldo, a Milanese at the court of the Emperor
Of Milanese origin, Giuseppe Arcimboldo settled in Vienna in 1562, in the service of Emperor Ferdinand I of Habsburg (1503-1564) then of his son Maximilian II (1527-1576), for whom he assumed the role of portraitist of court. Although he painted several members of the imperial family, he quickly owed his fame to series of composite heads representing the Seasons, the Elements, professions and personalities of the time. Each painting consists of an assembly of plants, animals or various objects which cleverly form a bust and a head, and which must make it possible to recognize the identity of the subject.
The success of the Seasons
The first series of Seasons was painted in 1563 for the Emperor, then was repeated several times. The Emperor owned at least two copies, and sent some, in addition to Augustus, to his cousin Philip II of Spain. Gregorio Comanini also recounts in his Figino (1591) that Arcimboldo offered him a painting bringing together the four Seasons. The Seasons adopt the codes of portraiture with a presentation of faces in profile, then neglected for real effigies but which wants to be part of the heritage of images from Antiquity, such as the coins of Imperial Rome. Initially arousing astonishment and amusement, Arcimboldo‘s compositions also hide a very refined political discourse. A poem by Giovanni Battista Fonteo offered to the Emperor in 1569, at the same time as a series of Seasons and another on the Elements, gives voice to the allegorical heads which, each, reveals the power of the empire whose power takes place in infinite time, throughout the eternal cycle of the seasons. The Seasons offer formal particularities which distinguish them from the Elements. The flower, fruit or vegetable that rises clearly from the chest, like a precious jewel, has a presence in the composition that the flatter ornaments of the Elements do not have. Even more, it is the very diversified expressions of the plant heads which establish the iconographic originality of the Seasons. These evoke the four ages of man: childhood, adolescence, maturity and old age. They also express the temperament linked to each season: the sanguine character of Spring, choleric of Summer, melancholic of Autumn and phlegmatic of Winter. This triple identity of the Seasons invites us to continue the game of correspondences with the other parts of nature such as the four elements, the four principles, etc. This conception of the functioning of nature by correspondence is characteristic of the spirit of the Renaissance and is found in other works or decorations of the period. The singularity of Arcimboldo‘s Seasons lies in the ingenious condensation of these correspondences into a unique, coherent and independent image.
A diplomatic gift
Augustus of Saxony was able to admire Arcimboldo‘s inventions at the imperial court and understand their symbolic and political significance. In the series offered to him, he discovered a new version of the paintings where the imperial symbols were replaced by his own (the crossed swords of Meissen). The correspondences between the microcosm, the macrocosm and political power, illustrated in the Seasons and the Elements and revealed by Fonteo’s poem, were now organized around the figure of Augustus, also sovereign of a political and natural order, belonging to a dynasty with a reign promised to eternity. A flattering political allegory, the Seasons were also striking images of the “discordia concors” and were undoubtedly to illustrate in the eyes of the Elector of Saxony the peaceful will of Maximilian, capable of bringing together the diversities of his empire into a coherent unity. The Seasons of the Louvre differ from the original model of 1563 (Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum) by the nature of the support, the wood being replaced by canvas perhaps chosen for the convenience of transport to the recipient. The Louvre cycle also presents a border formed of garlands of leaves and flowers around the compound heads which were added formerly but are not original. Comparison with the paintings from Vienna reveals slight differences in composition. In The Summer of the Louvre, the artichoke is shorter and we do not find the two small beans under the corn cob. The interlacing of the branches of Winter is different in the Viennese version, and the opening of the cavity forming the eye is slightly more open. Parisian Winter, with this half-open eye, seems more alive or awake than that of Vienna.
Other series with the arms of Saxony
Two other versions of the Seasons with the arms of Saxony are known. One, signed and dated, remained for a long time in the collections of the family of Counts Craven in England who had inherited it from Elisabeth (1596-1662), daughter of King James I of England, and wife of the Elector Palatine Frederick V, king of Bohemia between 1619 and 1620. After the defeat of Frederick V at the Battle of White Mountain in 1620, Elizabeth probably left Prague with these Seasons who thus joined England. These beautifully crafted paintings, however, appear to be copies. The second series, a poorer copy, is mentioned in a description of Gottorf’s Ducal Kunstkammer of Schleswig-Holstein by Adam Olearius in 1674. (Text by Vincent Delieuvin, July 2021) (Louvre)