Gustav Klimt

Born in 1862, Austrian painter Gustav Klimt became known for the highly decorative style and erotic nature of his works, which were seen as a rebellion against the traditional academic art of his time. His most famous paintings are The Kiss and Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

Biography of Gustav Klimt


Born to Ernst Klimt, a gold engraver who was originally from Bohemia, and Anna Finster, an aspiring but unsuccessful musical performer, Gustav Klimt was the second of seven children raised in the small suburb of Baumgarten, southwest of Vienna. The Klimt family was poor, as work was scarce in the early years of the Habsburg Empire, especially for minority ethnic groups, due in large part to the 1873 stock market crash.

Between 1862 and 1884, the Klimts moved frequently, living at no fewer than five different addresses, always seeking cheaper housing. In addition to financial hardships, the family experienced much tragedy at home. In 1874 Klimt’s younger sister, Anna, died at the age of five following a long illness. Not long after, his sister Klara suffered a mental breakdown after succumbing to religious fervour.

At an early age, Klimt and his two brothers Ernst and Georg displayed obvious artistic gifts. Gustav, however, was singled out by his instructors as an exceptional draftsman while attending secondary school. In October 1876, when he was fourteen, a relative encouraged him to take the entrance examination for the Kunstgewerbeschule, the Viennese School of Arts and Crafts, and he passed with distinction. He later said that he had intended to become a drawing master and take a teaching position at a Burgerschule, the 19th-century Viennese equivalent of a basic public secondary school, which he had attended.

Klimt began his formal training in Vienna while the city was undergoing significant change. In 1858, Emperor Franz Joseph I ordered the destruction of the remnants of the old medieval defensive walls that encircled the central part of the city, leaving a large circular space that was redeveloped as a series of broad boulevards known as the Ringstrasse (“ring street”). Over the next thirty years, the Ringstrasse became lined with trees and large bourgeois apartment houses, as well as many new buildings to house various civic and imperial government institutions, including theaters, art museums, the University of Vienna, and the Austrian Parliament building. Along with the newly constructed municipal railway, the arrival of electric street lamps, and city engineers rerouting the Danube River in order to avoid flooding, Vienna was entering a Golden Age of industry, research, and science, driven by modern advancements in these fields. One thing Vienna did not yet have, however, was a revolutionary spirit towards the arts.

The Kunstgewerbeschule’s curriculum and teaching methods were fairly traditional for their time, something Klimt never questioned or challenged. Through an intensive training in drawing, he was charged with faithfully copying decorations, designs, and plaster casts of classic sculptures. Once he proved himself in this regard, only then was he permitted to draw figures from life. Klimt impressed his instructors from the very beginning, soon joining a special class with a focus on painting, where he showed considerable talent for painting live figures and working with a variety of tools. The young artist’s training also included close studies of the works of Titian and Peter Paul Rubens. Klimt also had access to the Vienna Museum of Fine Arts’ wealth of paintings by Spanish master Diego Velázquez, for whose work he developed such a fondness that later in life, Klimt remarked, “There are only two painters: Velazquez and Klimt also became a huge admirer of Hans Markat (the most famous Viennese historical painter of the era), and particularly his technique, which employed dramatic effects of light and an evident love for theatricality and pageantry. At one point, while still a student, Klimt reportedly bribed one of Makart’s servants to let him into the painter’s studio so that Klimt might study the latest works in progress.

Shortly before leaving the Kunstgewerbeschule, Klimt’s painting class was joined by his younger brother Ernst and a young painter named Franz Matsch, another gifted Viennese artist who specialized in large-scale decorative works. Klimt and Matsch both ended their studies in 1883, and together the two rented a large studio in Vienna. Despite this move and his early success, Klimt maintained residence with his parents and surviving sisters. Klimt and Matsch soon became artists in high demand among the city’s cultural elite, including prominent architects, society figures, and public officials. As early as 1880, Klimt and Matsch were recommended by their painting professor, Ferdinand Laufberger, to undertake a four-painting commission on behalf of a Viennese architectural firm specializing in theater design.

Despite the demand, payment for Klimt and Matsch’s services was not lucrative. When Klimt, his brother Ernst, and Matsch were handed the job to decorate the grand stairway of the new Burgtheater, the trio found that their commission would not cover the costs of hiring models, so they enlisted friends and family. Today one can see Klimt’s sisters Hermine and Johanna (along with all three artists) among the spectators in Shakespeare’s theatre, while their brother Georg plays the dying Romeo. Incidentally, this is the only surviving self-portrait of Klimt.

Mature Period

By the end of 1892, both the senior Ernst Klimt – Gustav’s father – and his younger brother Ernst had died, the latter quite suddenly from a bout of pericarditis. These deaths profoundly affected Gustav, who was now left financially responsible for his mother, sisters, brother’s widow, and their infant daughter. His brother Ernst’s widow, Helene Flöge – to whom he had been married for a mere fifteen months – and her middle-class family had homes in both the city and country, where Klimt became a frequent guest. Klimt soon began an intimate friendship with Helene’s sister, Emilie Flöge, which would last for the remainder of his life and provide the basis for one of his most famous portraits.

Klimt’s pace of work slowed following the deaths of his brother and father. The artist also began questioning the conventions of academic painting, which resulted in a rift between Klimt and his long-time partner Matsch. In 1893, the Artistic Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Education approached Matsch for a commission to decorate the ceiling of the newly built Great Hall of the University of Vienna. Klimt did eventually join the project (whether at the request of Matsch or the Ministry), but this collaboration would be the last between the two men.

Klimt was asked to produce three large ceiling paintings for the university’s Great Hall, including Philosophy (1897-98), Medicine (1900-01), and Jurisprudence (1899-1907). To his commissioners’ surprise, for these paintings Klimt chose to employ a highly decorative symbolism that is difficult to read, thus marking a significant turn in his attitude toward painting and art in general. Significant controversy arose over Klimt’s University paintings, especially due to the nudity of some of the figures in Medicine, and in part to accusations that the subject matter was vague. The University paintings were never installed, and in the aftermath of the controversy, Klimt resolved never to accept again a public commission.

Founding the Vienna Secession

Klimt’s work on the University of Vienna paintings coincided with a broader schism within the Vienna art community. In 1897 he, along with several other modern artists and designers, renounced his membership in the Kunstlerhaus, Vienna’s leading association of artists, of which Klimt had been a member since 1891. The Kunstlerhaus controlled the main venue for exhibiting contemporary art in the city, and Klimt and his fellow modernists complained that they were being denied the same privileges of exhibiting work there because the Kunstlerhaus, which took a commission on works displayed there, favored the better-selling conservative works.

The modernist cohort immediately regrouped to found the Vienna Secession (also known as The Union of Austrian Artists) in 1897. Along with Klimt, the group included Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, and Joseph Maria Olbrich. Klimt was made the Secession’s founding president. Its founding principles were as follows: to provide young and unconventional artists with an outlet to show their work; to expose Vienna to the great works of foreign artists (namely the French Impressionists, which the Kunstlerhaus had failed to do); and to publish a periodical, eventually titled Ver Sacrum (“Sacred Spring”), which took its name from the Roman tradition of cities sending younger generations of its citizens out on their own to found a new settlement.

The Secession quickly established its presence within the city’s artistic scene through a series of exhibitions, which Klimt played a large role in organizing. Many of them featured work by foreign contemporary artists who were made corresponding members of the group. The exhibitions received wide acclaim from the public and elicited surprisingly little controversy, given that the Viennese had little to no exposure to modern art. In 1902, the Secessionists held their 14th exhibition, a celebration of the composer Ludwig van Beethoven, for which Klimt painted his famous Beethoven Frieze, a massive and complex work that, paradoxically, made no explicit reference to any of Beethoven’s compositions. Instead, it was seen as a complex, lyrical, and highly ornate allegory of the artist as God.

Though the Secession was dedicated to the idea of the or the completely and harmoniously designed environment, it attempted to keep art above the realm of commercial concerns, which proved problematic for its members, most notably decorative artists, whose work in designing useful objects demanded a commercial outlet to be successful. In 1903, two of its prominent members, Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, formed a new organization, the Wiener Werkstätte, dedicated to the promotion and design of decorative arts and architecture for such purposes. Klimt, who was close to both Hoffmann and Moser, would thereafter collaborate on several of the Werkstatte’s projects, most notably the giant multi-panel tree-of-life painted frieze for the Palais Stoclet in Brussels, the greatest Gesamtkuntswerk produced by the Werkstatte, between 1905-10.

In 1905, Klimt and a number of his associates resigned from the Vienna Secession due to a disagreement over the group’s association with local galleries, which were not especially strong in Vienna, to market their art. Despite having their own exhibition space, the Secessionists were still dogged by a lack of a systematic location to complete the sale of their work. The Klimtgruppe (as Klimt and his supporters, including Moser and Josef Maria Auchentaller were known) proposed that the Secession purchase the Gallery Miethke, but were rejected by one vote when the suggestion was put before the membership, as the opposition wished to keep the Secession fully separate from commercial interests. The Klimtgruppe‘s resignation gutted the Secession of its most internationally prominent members; nonetheless, in the years since it has reinvented itself many times – often coinciding with changes in leadership – and today it remains the only Austrian artist-run society dedicated to the promotion of contemporary art.

Late Period and Death

In the decade between 1898 and 1908, while working as a member of the Secession and on the commissions for the University, Klimt’s personal style, which richly combined elements of both the pre-modern and modern eras, reached its full maturation. He produced several of his most famous works during these years that together now comprise his “Golden Phase,” so-called largely due to Klimt’s extensive use of gold leaf. These paintings include Field of Poppies (1907), The Kiss (1907-08) along with the portraits Pallas Athene (1898), Judith I (1901), and Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1903-07). Despite the respect accorded them today, the reception at the time was not always as kind: one critic quipped upon seeing Bloch-Bauer I for the first time that it was “more blech than Bloch” (“blech” actually being the German word for tin). If Klimt disliked the response to his paintings, he was probably glad that critics never got to see his sketchbooks, as Klimt was in some ways the early-20th-century male equivalent of the stereotypical crazy cat lady. He claimed that cat urine was the best fixative, and so his sketchbooks are often covered in it.

In the last decade or so of his life, Klimt divided much of his time between his studio and garden in Heitzing, in Vienna, and the country home of the Flöge family, where he and Emilie spent much time together. Although there was unquestionably a romantic bond between them, it is widely believed the two never gave in to physical desire. Their closeness, however, did not soften Klimt’s dislike for using written language: in one letter to Emilie, he got so frustrated that he simply wrote, “To hell with words!” Klimt was equally terse and uncomplimentary when discussing places he had visited; on one visit to Italy, he could only report back to Emilie that “there is much that is pathetic in Ravenna – the mosaics are tremendously splendid.”

During these summers Klimt produced many of his stunning (yet frequently underappreciated)  landscape paintings, such as The Park (1909-10), often from the vantage point of a rowboat or an open field. Klimt had two loves: painting and women, and his appetite for both was seemingly insatiable. Klimt’s personal life, about which he took pains to be discreet, has as a result become quite famously the subject of considerable speculation amongst critics and historians, especially given Klimt’s numerous portraits of women. In many cases, no consensus has been reached on Klimt’s involvement with certain individual women; while many reports swear by Klimt’s intimate liaisons, others – in part due to the lack of hard evidence – doubt that there was any romantic involvement between Klimt and those same sitters.

While Klimt did not alter his subject matter during his final years, his painterly style did undergo significant changes. Largely doing away with the use of gold and silver leaf, and ornamentation in general, the artist began using subtle mixtures of color, such as lilac, coral, salmon and yellow. Klimt also produced a staggering number of drawings and studies during this time, the majority of which were of female nudes, some so erotic that to this day they are seldom exhibited. At the same time, many of Klimt’s later portraits have been praised for the artist’s greater attention to character and a supposed new concern for likeness. These features are evident in Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) and Mada Primavesi (1913), as well as the strangely erotic The Friends (c. 1916-17), which portrays what appears to be a lesbian couple – one naked and the other clothed – against a stylized backdrop of birds and flowers.

On January 11, 1918, Klimt suffered a stroke, which left him paralyzed on his right side. Bedridden and no longer able to paint or even sketch, Klimt sank into despair and contracted influenza. On February 6th he died, one of the more famous victims of that year’s flu pandemic. He was just one of four great Vienna artists to die that year: Otto Wagner, Koloman Moser, and Egon Schiele all succumbed, the latter also an influenza victim. By the time of his death, various strands of modern art, including Cubism, Futurism, Dada and Constructivism, had all captured the attention of creative Europeans. Klimt’s body of work was by then considered part of a bygone era in painting, which still focused on human and natural forms rather than a deconstruction, or outright renunciation, of those very things.

The Legacy of Gustav Klimt

Klimt never married; never painted a single self-portrait intended as such; and never claimed to be revolutionizing art in any way. Klimt did not travel extensively, but he did leave Austria on a number of visits to other locations in Europe (although on the one occasion he visited Paris, he left thoroughly unimpressed). With the groundbreaking Secession, Klimt’s primary aim was to call attention to contemporary Viennese artists and in turn to call their attention to the much broader world of modern art beyond Austria’s borders. In this sense Klimt is responsible for helping to transform Vienna into a leading center for culture and the arts at the turn of the century.

Klimt’s direct influence on other artists and subsequent movements was quite limited. Much in the way Klimt revered Hans Makart but eventually deviated from his mentor’s style, younger Viennese artists like Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka revered Klimt early on, only to mature into more quasi-abstract and expressionistic forms of painting. At the age of 17, Schiele sought Klimt out, and developed a friendship with the master that reveals itself today in several comparisons between their works; Schiele’s Cardinal and Nun (Caress) of 1912, for example, is undoubtedly based on Klimt’s The Kiss (Lovers) of 1907-08. Klimt introduced Schiele to numerous gallery owners, artists, and models, including Valerie (Wally) Neuzil, with whom Schiele began a relationship in 1911 around the time the two moved together to Krumau, in Bohemia (now Cesky Krumlov, in the Czech Republic) – though in 1916 Neuzil returned to Vienna to model again for Klimt. Both Schiele and Klimt produced portraits of the wealthy avant-garde patron Friederika Maria Beer-Monti, in 1914 and 1916, respectively; in fact, initially Klimt declined the commission for the later portrait of Beer-Monti because Schiele had already completed his.

While some critics and historians contend that Klimt’s work should not be included in the canon of modern Art  his oeuvre – particularly his paintings postdating 1900 – remains striking for its visual combinations of the old and the modern, the real and the abstract. Klimt produced his greatest work during a time of economic expansion, social change, and the introduction of radical ideas, and these traits are clearly evident in his paintings. Klimt created a highly personal style, and the meaning of many of his works cannot be deciphered completely without knowledge of his own personal relationships with those depicted and, due to Klimt’s careful discretion in his private life, will probably never be fully comprehended. Other works are virtually inscrutable due to the baffling arrangements of their content. This situation nonetheless arguably contributes to Klimt’s stature, as his paintings will continually be shrouded in some sort of mystery and invite myriad interpretations and intense critical rumination.

Klimt has achieved a kind of immortality from the controversy that he generated from the content of his works at the turn of the century and the mystery surrounding his relationships with his sitters, but he may have even surpassed this long after his death with the fates of some of his most famous works. Several of Klimt’s paintings entered the collections of Jewish connoisseurs in the 1930s, and this fact, probably combined with Klimt’s status as a prominent modern artist, contributed to their confiscation by the Nazis after 1938 and their post-war placement, if not destroyed, in state museums. Meanwhile, the original owners and their heirs – most notably the Altmann family, who held claims to Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer I – have since filed lawsuits to recover the paintings for private ownership, some of which have been successful. Such events have raised considerably Klimt’s profile as an artist, with the sale of some of these recovered works bringing record prices.

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