Giuseppe Arcimboldo painted many interesting works, but few really good ones. That is one of the reasons for which this 16th-century Lombard master is held in scant regard by the more discerning critics of Old Master painting. Another reason, to be frank, is that people who don't like painting often like Arcimboldo. Their affection is a consequence of the defining weirdness of his career — his fashioning of human portraits from such extravagant composites as fruits, books, timber, and eels. Nor does it help that, several generations ago, he was co-opted as a proto-Surrealist, an emissary of Breton and Dalí dispatched back into the Mannerist age.
But the fact that many paintings attributed to Arcimboldo (1526-93) are mediocre — either because he was rarely at the top of his form, or because inferior studio hands predominate in them — does not mean that this native of Milan was incapable of some inspired efforts. It is very easy to see that most of his works — such as the four depictions of the seasons on view in the Louvre — betray their initial dazzle with a flat and pedestrian handling. But the true job of criticism, where Arcimboldo is concerned, is to see past that weakness and to determine which of his works are indeed distinguished.
If anyone doubts that Arcimboldo was capable of greater things, it will suffice to examine a painting that has just been loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the next year or so. Its title, "Allegorical Head of the Four Seasons" (1587), is a little misleading. The title attempts to account for the apples, grapes, flowers, and wheat that surround the sitter's head and that are associated with the various seasons of the year. But if their presence makes it difficult to nail down the precise season depicted, the overwhelming point of the painting is winter. Those other seasonal attributes surround the sitter's head, but the head itself, and hence the sitter's selfhood, are a composite of dried and gnarled tinder wood. This is a winter's tale, a depiction of the artist himself, perhaps, in the darkest winter of his days.
The painting at the Met was executed after Arcimboldo returned to Milan in 1587, following many years of service at the court of Rudolf II, in both Vienna and Prague. Look closely and you will see a painting that, superficially, appears similar to the works for which this artist is known. In fact, though, it is very different. Unlike most of its predecessors, which are in profile, the subject of the painting at the Met is a three-quarter view. More materially, the overwhelming spirit and merit of the work is startling sobriety and seriousness, despite its Mannerist distortions. By depicting his sitter in three-quarter view, Arcimboldo has achieved what, for him, is an almost unprecedented psychological penetration. Old age seems to have descended, like a repulsive, disfiguring plague, upon the sitter. But the soul, with its inextinguishable human glow, still manages, however improbably, to pierce the chapped, gnarled, and weathered wood that makes up his nose and the armature of his face.
In its depiction of old age, this one work achieves pathos and force that are rarer than one might think in the 16th-century paintings about old age. You could go so far as to suggest a comparison to that radiant and redemptive exhaustion that marks the late self-portraits of Rembrandt, pre-eminently the one in the Frick Collection. No less striking is the unflagging illusion of depth in the shadows of this face: The viewer's eye wanders among them at length and never comes, with jarring suddenness, up against that dispiriting flatness that, after a moment's inspection, is the entire residue of all too many of Arcimboldo's paintings.
Whether because of imperfect preservation (in this otherwise well-preserved work) or because of the presence of studio hands, not every surrounding detail is quite as achieved as one could wish. In the sheaves of wheat and in the flowers, you find some of the flatness that is all too typical of Arcimboldo's work. But by itself, the apple that lies between the antler-like branches atop the sitter's head is a masterpiece of later Cinquecento Northern Italian naturalism. Emerging out of a tradition that began with the Lombard herbalists at the end of the 1300s, the naturalism of that one apple would evolve, little more than a decade later, into Caravaggio's two greatest still lifes, the one in the Brera in Milan and the one included in "The Supper at Emmaus," in London's National Gallery.