From his own time as court painter in Vienna and Prague, the late Renaissance master Giuseppe Arcimboldo has been noted for his bizarre composite heads. Painted singly or in series, the heads combine plants, animals, and other objects appropriate to the themes Arcimboldo treated, such as the Four Seasons and the Four Elements (earth, air, fire, and water). The artist's Four Seasons in One Head, newly acquired by the Gallery, was publicly presented for the first time in the Arcimboldo retrospective held in Paris and Vienna in 2007. The exceptional importance of the picture was established in Sylvia Ferino-Pagden's exhibition catalogue entry, and its status as a late autograph masterpiece by the artist was recently confirmed by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann in his 2009 monograph. Kaufmann hails the painting as "one of the most startling discoveries of works by Arcimboldo in recent years."
The panel is signed "ARCIMBOLDUS F," where the bark has peeled away on the branch at the right. It is also the subject of a lengthy description in a literary dialogue titled Il Figino written by Arcimboldo's friend Gregorio Comanini and published in 1591. Here the Milanese artist Ambrogio Figino is advised to have "Comanini show you Arcimboldo's playful treatment of the Four Seasons; you will see a lovely work." After accurately describing the painting, Figino is assured that "the work will please you wonderfully."
The flowers and fruit (apples, plums, grapes, and cherries) in the Four Seasons compare with the same or similar nature motifs in Arcimboldo's other works. In particular, the gnarled and rather menacing tree trunk and branches find exact parallels in the versions of Winter in the Louvre and in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. The Four Seasons has the additional interest of the more engaging three-quarter view, unlike the strict profile Arcimboldo adopted for the Seasons and the Elements. The Four Seasons stands out in other respects as well. By contrast to the whimsical character of much of Arcimboldo's work, the mood is darker and more somber. The Four Seasons is also the most closely related of all Arcimboldo's composite heads to the physiognomic studies of Leonardo da Vinci, Arcimboldo's predecessor in Milan. Painted around 1590, after Arcimboldo had returned to his native city, the Four Seasons is one of his last works. If not a self-portrait of the artist in the "winter" of his life, the painting is a summa of his career.