Courtesy of National Gallery of Art
Vertumnus, c. 1590, by Giuseppi Arcimboldo; oil on panel, framed: 31-7/8 by 26-3/4 in.), unframed:26-3/4 by 22-1/16 in., Skokloster Castle, Skokloster, Sweden.

Arcimboldo exhibition a must for gardeners

Italian artist Giuseppi Arcimboldo created fantastical paintings of heads composed of scientifically accurate vegetables, fruits, flowers, and more. An exhibition is currently on display at the National Galley of Art in Washington.

Recently, I played hooky. It was a beautiful November day and I could have been cutting back some long canes on the roses to prevent them flying around this coming winter.

Or I could have hauled my ceramic pots into the basement to prevent their chipping and cracking in the cold and wet in winter. I could have covered the arugula and spinach with their little hoops and heavy plastic.

A day for garden-releated art

Instead, I went with a dear friend for a look at the art of Giuseppi Arcimboldo at the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Though I used to live closer when I was a daily commuter to this great city, now it is a journey, so I don’t visit as often as I would like to.

My friend had seen the exhibit [pdf], told me of it, and couldn’t wait to look again. Arcimboldo lived in the 1500s and skillfully painted fantastical and scientifically accurate portraits using vegetables, flowers, fish, birds, and on and on. Teeth are lily of the valley flowers, for instance. Ears are figs.

Of the paintings in the exhibition, several are on loan from the Louvre. At one point I stood too close to the Louvre loaners and was nicely reprimanded by an alert guard. “One foot – 12 inches away…”

One fascinating portrait is of fire, with gold flames erupting from this man with his “hair on fire” and cannons depicting his chest.


But for a gardener, the most beautiful paintings are those of the seasons. Flowers form the translucent skin of a young woman as Spring, an old grizzled man with branches and roots as Winter, summer’s bounty colorfully displayed a zucchini-nosed man with garlic ears and woven wheat clothing, and Autumn with apple cheeks and a chestnut mouth – all beautifully and accurately rendered.

And I had to keep remembering that these were painted in the 1500s.

If you can, please get yourself to this exhibit, "Arcimboldo 1526-1593: Nature and Fantasy." It will remain open until Jan. 9, 2011. A calendar, several books, and postcards in the gift shop will be wonderful reminders.

For me, it was a great way to play hooky – a French restaurant in the National Gallery seemed like a good place to catch our breath. I figured that later, I there would be plenty of time to cut back the rose canes.


Donna Williamson blogs regularly at Diggin' It. She's a master gardener, garden designer, and garden coach. She has taught gardening and design classes at the State Arboretum of Virginia, Oatlands in Leesburg, and Shenandoah University. She’s also the founder and editor of Grandiflora Mid-Atlantic Gardening magazine, and the author of “The Virginia Gardener’s Companion: An Insider’s Guide to Low Maintenance Gardening in Virginia.” She lives in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. To read more by Donna, click here.

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