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Giuseppe Arcimboldo Copy after, 17th century

The Librarian

Hammered at SEK 300.000 at Uppsala Auktionskammare’s Important Sale Week 10-13 December 2019

Lot. 804 Giuseppe Arcimboldo (Italy 1527‑1593). Copy after, 17th century. The Librarian. Oil on relined canvas, 99 x 72 cm.

Several other versions after the lost prototype exist: one is in Skokloster slott, Uppland, a second was at Linköping library (lost in a fire in 1996), a third was in the collection of Eva Hökersberg, Stockholm.

With notes on the reverse: ”Ulfklou No 73”.

Uppsala Auktionskammare would like to thank Professor Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann for his valuable contributions in cataloguing this lot. A report dated in Princeton March 2019 by Professor Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann is available upon request.


300.000 – 400.000 SEK
€ 28.000 – 37.000


A Swedish Private Collection.


Palazzo Grassi, Venice, ”Effetto Arcimboldo”, 1987, cat. no. 89.


Pontus Hultén (ed.), The Arcimboldo effect, 1987, illustrated p. 86.

In context

The ingenious portrait of The Librarian

A pile of books is skilfully arranged so that it builds up a portrait of a man in half-figure. On top of the head is an open book forming a sort of hat.  The artist behind this clever composition is the legendary Giuseppe Arcimboldo.

The portraits by Arcimboldo composed by different fruits, flowers, utensils and other objects such as books became popular in the Habsburg court. Their reputation reached other courts in Europe wanting them in their collections so the artist had to make several versions. The high demand even had contemporary artists create copies and today, some conceptions are only known through the copies.

When confronted with a painting by Arcimboldo you are struck by fascination. The paintings allude to something completely new and surprising; at the time they were created often regarded as “capricci” or “scherzi” and functioned as visual jokes. In his compositions Arcimboldo plays a game with the beholder. This suited well in a time where the scientific view of understanding people was through chiromancy – by reading the lines of the hands and by physiognomy – where a person’s character would be judged by his or her appearance. However, the composite portraits are not only capricious, playful jokes – further interpretations are also possible as argued in Professor Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, Arcimboldo – Visual Jokes, Natural History, and Still-Life Painting, 2009. The portraits were visual paradoxes in the sense that the compositions, made up by a number of different elements, together form a head or a torso. The paradox lies in the impossibility for the viewer to separate the impression of the individual parts with the composed head or torso. Furthermore Arcimboldo’s play with illusion also included his use of different elements accordingly to the person he portrayed so that the portraits in themselves expressed their subjects.

Born in Milan in 1527, Arcimboldo went to the Habsburg court in Central Europe in 1562 and served the Habsburgs for more than a quarter of a century as imperial painter, during the reigns of Ferdinand I (1558-64), Maximilian II (1564-76) and Rudolf II (1676-1612). Besides painting his famous composite portraits, he painted and copied the Habsburg portraits, designed festivals, assisted with acquisitions for the imperial collections and made drawings for silk manufacture. His influence on both contemporaries and later artists is widely known and his works are rarely seen on the art market.

Recorded under no. 1220 in an inventory from 1621 of the collections of the castle in Prague, The Librarian is noted as “Ein conterfeet von büchern vom Arsimboldo (Orig.)” – an original painting from his hand. That painting is believed to have come to Sweden in the sack of Prague in 1648 and was later in the collections of Queen Christina of Sweden. It is believed to be the painting described in an inventory of her collections by Polycarpus Crumbügel in 1652: “ditto på Lärft, som är een mansperson af böcker gjorder”, among the paintings described as mid-sized. Four paintings analogue with this description have been described in Swedish collections, the most famous one is in Skokloster slott. This painting has previously been believed to be the one described in the Queen’s inventory. According to Professor Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann, who has been most helpful in the cataloguing of the present lot in sale, this assumption was made “first by Olaf Granberg in his book on Queen Christina’s collection, then by Benno Geiger in the first full monograph on Arcimboldo of 1955”. All the four known versions in Sweden were shown in the exhibition Effetto Arcimboldo in Palazzo Grassi in Venice in 1987. The Skokloster version was again presented as a work by the artist himself. Professor DaCosta Kaufmann continues in the report dated in March 2019: ”This attribution was based probably on the old provenance of the painting from the collection of the Swedish general Wrangel, whom it is assumed brought it back from the sack of Prague in 1648, and placed it in his newly built Slott in Skokloster, built 1654 to 1676.  However, as Sven Alfons noted in his 1957 monograph on Arcimboldo, unless Wrangel gained this painting from Queen Christina, it is unlikely to be the same as that mentioned in her collection in 1652; moreover Alfons noted that the painting was too laxly executed and had more anemic coloring than other paintings by Arcimboldo that were originals, and could be compared to the authentic Vertumnus still in Skokloster”. The other versions in Sweden of the subject mentioned were the one in the collections of the library in Linköping (Linköpings stifts- och landsbibliotek), destroyed in a fire in 1996, another was in the Swedish private collection of Eva Hökersberg and the last one is the present painting in this sale, recently appearing from a private collection in Stockholm.

Professor Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann concludes that all the versions must be copies: “For Alfons the paintings in Linköping and the Hökerberg collection were both old copies after the one in Skokloster. Speaking in favor of Alfons’s judgment that the Linköping and Hökerberg collection painting are copies, at least after the variant represented in Skokloster, is the fact that they both lack the bookmarks protruding from the cheek.  The absence of detail would point to their being not the first versions”. The later observation was also made in connection with the Effetto Arcimboldo exhibition catalogue emphasizing that the present version is linked to the version in Skokloster due to their similar bookmarks on the cheek. Professor DaCosta Kaufmann points out that the painting in Skokloster is to his belief not by Arcimboldo and continues: “accordingly do not think any of the versions of the man made out of books is an original by the artist”. Professor DaCosta Kaufmann continues: ”That leaves open the question when and where they were done.  Because of the old provenance of the Skokloster version, I believe it is an old copy, probably brought back from Prague, and thus antedating, most likely, 1612, the date of Rudolf’s death, and possibly earlier”. 

The inscription “Ulfklou No 73” on the back of the painting included in this sale probably refers to an old Swedish collection where the painting was included. Professor Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann believes that the four versions in Sweden of The Librarian may all come from Central Europe and are old copies. Another possibility is that three of the versions are copies made in Sweden after the Skokloster painting. When it comes to his other compositions, several versions by Arcimboldo are known but also copies by his workshop, for instance copies of Arcimboldo’s popular Seasons dating before 1597 are in the Bavarian State collections.

Some of the composite portraits can be read as portraits of people associated with the court made by the painter to please the emperor. The painting in this sale is not only a humourist portrait of a librarian or an erudite, but by Sven Alfons recognized as a portrait of Wolfgang Lazius, the humanist and historian responsible for the Kunstkammer of the emperor, including the numismatic collection and the library (Sven Alfons, Giuseppe Arcimboldo. En biografisk och ikonografisk studie in Symbolister 2/Tidskrift för Konstvetenskap, 1957, p. 65). Wolfgang Lazius, born in Vienna in 1514, was an intellectual scholar who in 1554 became the historian of the court and responsible for the imperial collections. In this role it is possible that Arcimboldo devoted a portrait to Lazius although it somewhat ridicules him.

According to the spirit of the time, The Librarian can be interpreted symbolically as a satire of scholars and librarians. The books are symbols of knowledge and wisdom and in this particular composition the artist ridicules the portrayed with the open book on the top of his head. His eyes are made up by two key rings, the beard by a feather duster and the fingers are paper bookmarks. K.C. Elhard argues in the article “Reopening the Book on Arcimboldo’s ‘Librarian’” in 2005 that the painting instead should be interpreted as mocking those collecting books; in that sense a more materialistic view and targeting those who are more interested in acquiring books rather than reading them.

The present version of Arcimboldo’s composition The Librarian is a fine example of this humorous and intriguing composite portrait. This old copy probably originates from Central Europe, most likely executed in the early 17th century but it remains uncertain how and when it came to Sweden. It has a close relation to the Skokloster-version, but since the original dating from circa 1562-1566 is still missing we can only speculate about their closeness to this. The fact that there are, at least, four known paintings of this subject, suggests that The Librarian was popular.

Arcimboldo and his composite portraits will continue to fascinate us all. The timeless playfulness of his mesmerizing works, the unique expression and bold portraits not only were widely popular during his own time but are again today highly sought after.

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