The portrait of the lady as an old man

Aktualisiert: 17. Feb 2020

Queering Giuseppe Arcimboldo's painting Winter

  • Arcimboldo's Seasons and Elements paintings were interpreted by Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann as visualizations of the Classical Elements in Humorism (not to be confused with humour in the sense of fun). He has repeatedly highlighted possible meanings of the paintings, which represent no mere jokes, but might contain a political message.

  • Humorism is a medical theory mostly connected with Galen and Hippocrates, two famous theoreticians of Antiquity.

  • Following Galen/Hippocrates, the 4 Elements (wind, fire, earth, water) correspond to the 4 Seasons (spring, summer, autumn, winter), 4 Ages (Childhood, Youth, Maturity, Old age), 4 Temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic) and other categories.

  • Galen/Hippocrates added the analogy male/fire (dry/warm) in opposition to female/water (humid/cold) and introduced the gender polarity to medicine.

(Water, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, ca. 1566, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, ©KHM-Museumsverband)

  • Water wears pearls. It’s a lady indeed. Compare it with the pearls in a portrait of Empress Mary, also painted by the artist.

(Empress Mary, detail of the Emperor Maximilian II.'s family portrait, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, ca. 1563, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, ©KHM-Museumsverband)

  • According to Galen/Hippocrates, the element Water and the Cold correspond to the season Winter and Old Age (old man) as well as to the female. At the first glance, Winter is personified by a treelike old man.

  • I think Arcimboldo painted a "female old man", having lost his "masculinity" he used to have as a young man (Summer).

(Winter, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, ca. 1563, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, ©KHM-Museumsverband)

  • The Galenic/Hippocratic „queer“ thinking was surely known to the physicians, botanists and pharmacists at the court of Maximilian II., for whom Arcimboldo was working.

  • Do the lemons symbolize breasts?

  • And the artichoke in the painting Fire a phallus? In theory, Summer and Fire are essentially male.

(Summer, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, ca. 1563, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, ©KHM-Museumsverband)

(Fire, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, ca. 1566, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, ©KHM-Museumsverband)

  • The paintings Water and Winter might symbolize the female principle (Empress Mary?) while the paintings Fire and Summer the male principle (Emperor Maximilian II.).

  • Not likely - the 16th Century didn't belief yet in the essentialist gender dichotomy.

  • Nowadays, Arcimboldo's Winter might be considered as queer.

Text © Philipp Reichel-Neuwirth 2020

Bibliography (selection):

BÖHME, Hartmut/Gernot: Feuer, Wasser, Erde, Luft. Eine Kulturgeschichte der Elemente. Beck, München 1996 (1. Aufl.), 2010 (2. Aufl.)

DA COSTA Kaufmann, Thomas: Arcimboldo's imperial allegories : G. B. Fonteo and the interpretation of Arcimboldo's painting. München [u.a.] : Dt. Kunstverl., 1976

DA COSTA Kaufmann, Thomas: Arcimboldo. Visual jokes, natural history, and still-life painting. University of Chicago Press, 2009

FERINO-PAGDEN, Sylvia (Hg.): Arcimboldo 1526-1593. Kunsthistorisches Museum and others, Wien 2008


REICHEL-NEUWIRTH, Philipp (2020): The portrait of the lady as an old man, Feb. 7th, 2020. Internet blog: Date of Citation:

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