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Arcimboldo's 'Four Seasons' will join National Gallery of Art collection

A show at the National Gallery gives us almost all the surviving oil paintings of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a Renaissance painter best known for his portraits built from fruits and vegetables and beasts. He was also one of the first painters of free-standing still lifes.

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Friday, September 17, 2010

Washingtonians who enjoy the Arcimboldo show will get a chance to endlessly revisit at least one small part of it. The National Gallery of Art has announced that it has purchased one of the show's best paintings for its permanent collection, as the only undisputed Arcimboldo work in public hands in the U.S.

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It's a picture of a single figure, perhaps representing the four seasons: spring flowers on its chest, summer cherries as an earring, fall wheat and fruit as hair and hat and a bare winter tree as its body and head. Curators are giving it the awkward title of "Four Seasons in One Head" and dating it to around 1490, when Arcimboldo would have been in his 60s.

Where the bark is peeling off one branch on the figure's head, the picture is inscribed "Arcimboldo F," short for the Latin "Arcimboldo fecit" -- "Made by Arcimboldo" -- which was how he signed other paintings.

The painting may well be the one that Arcimboldo made for his friend, scholar Gregorio Comanini, who described it in detail in a book published in 1591. It then passed out of sight until 2007, when it was rediscovered in an unnamed private collection in England.

The purchase has been made from the gallery's Paul Mellon Fund and, as usual, the cost has not been disclosed. Another Arcimboldo, this exhibition's reversible still life of a basket of fruit, is on the market for $5 million -- "very inexpensive for a picture of this rarity," says Martin Zimet, the New York dealer who is selling it. Fewer than 20 Arcimboldo paintings are known.

-- Blake Gopnik


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