Born: July 14, 1862 - Baumgarten, Austro-Hungarian Empire
Died: February 6, 1918 - Vienna, Austria
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"Whoever wants to know something about me - as an artist which alone is significant - they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognize what I am and what I want."
Austrian painter Gustav Klimt was Vienna's most renowned advocator of Art Nouveau, or, as the style was known in Germany, Jugendstil ("youth style"). He is remembered as one of the greatest decorative painters of the twentieth century, and he also produced one of the century's most significant bodies of erotic art. Initially successful as a conventional academic painter, his encounter with more modern trends in European art encouraged him to develop his own eclectic and often fantastic style. His position as the co-founder and first president of the Vienna Secession also ensured that this style would become widely influential - though Klimt's direct influence on other artists was limited. He never courted scandal, but it dogged his career, and although he never married, he is said to have fathered fourteen children.
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Adele Bloch-Bauer I (c.1907)
Of all the many women Klimt painted from life, Adele Bloch-Bauer, the wife of a Viennese banker (and Klimt's lover), was the only woman to sit for him more than once. This, the first of the two portraits, is considered by many to be his finest work. The sitter is adorned with precious materials and ancient artifacts, suggesting her wealth and power; but her stare, and her grasping hands, also suggest that she is fragile (the disfigured finger on her right hand is concealed). Despite these features, Klimt was largely unconcerned at this time with depicting his sitter's character, and even less so with providing location and context, omissions that were common in all of Klimt's earlier portraits. Klimt's biographer, Frank Whitford, has described the picture as "the most elaborate example of the tyranny of the decorative" in the artist's work. Klimt gives over almost every space on the canvas to ornament, and leaves only the woman's hands and upper body to describe her appearance. Like many artists around this period who were experimenting with abstraction, Klimt was faced with the possibility of crossing into pure form, and leaving depicted objects behind. That this picture marked an important turning point, and that he chose to turn back from this extreme, is indicated by his second portrait of Bloch-Bauer, produced in 1912, in which her body stands out much more substantially against the background.
Oil, gold and silver leaf on canvas - Neue Galerie, New York
Born to Ernst Klimt, a gold engraver and Bohemian immigrant, 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 immigrants, due in large part to the 1873 stock market crash.
Between 1862 and 1884, the Klimt family 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 fervor.
At an early age, Klimt and his two brothers Ernst and Georg displayed obvious artistic gifts as draftsmen, painters and craftsmen. 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 at a time known as the Ringstrasse Era, when the city was undergoing massive change. The center was constructed as one giant ring, and the bourgeois class was patronizing the arts as never before. 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 its Golden Age of industry, research, and science. One thing Vienna did not yet have, however, was a revolutionary spirit towards the arts.
Training and Early Success
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. Here too, Klimt displayed masterful gifts for painting life figures and for working with a variety of tools, including the brush and soft pencil. The young artist's training also included close studies of the works of Titian, Rubens, and Hans Makart, the most famous Viennese historical painter of the Ringstrasse Era.
Klimt became a huge admirer of Makart, 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. In 1888, the Vienna City Council commissioned each artist to create a painting as a historical record of the city's old Burgtheater, which was slated for demolition. (Meanwhile, the new Burgtheater had already been constructed inside Vienna's Ringstrasse; Klimt and Matsch would soon be asked to decorate this theater as well.) Klimt's painting, The Auditorium of the Old Burgtheater (1888-89), employed a unique perspective by painting the auditorium from the vantage point of the stage rather than the auditorium itself.
By the end of 1892, both Ernst junior and senior had died, the former quite suddenly from a bout of pericarditis. These deaths profoundly affected Klimt, who was now left financially responsible for his mother, sisters, brother's widow, and their infant daughter. Ernst's widow, Helene Floge, and her middle class family, had homes in both the city and country, where Klimt became a frequent guest. During these visits, Klimt began an intimate friendship with Helene's sister, Emilie Floge, which would last for the remainder of his life.
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. In the end, Klimt produced some thirty-nine ceiling paintings for the Great Hall, including Medicine (1900-07), Philosophy (1899-1907), and Jurisprudence (1897-98), all of which employed a highly decorative symbolism, marking a significant turn in Klimt's attitude toward painting and art in general. All three paintings were destroyed in 1945 by retreating German forces.
Much controversy arose over Klimt's University paintings, due in part to the nudity of some of the figures in Medicine, and in part to accusations that his use of symbolism was vague. In 1897 he renounced his membership of the Kunstlerhaus, Vienna's leading association of artists, of which he had been a member since 1891, (he complained of their monopoly of art sales and exhibitions). And this encouraged him to help found the Vienna Secession (also known as The Union of Austrian Artists), along with Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, and Joseph Maria Olbrich, who designed and built the Secession Building in 1897. 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 Sacred Spring.
The initial Secession exhibitions received wide acclaim from the public, and they elicited surprisingly little controversy, given that the Viennese had little to no exposure to modern art. In 1902 the Secessionists held their 14th Vienna Exhibition, a celebration of the composer Ludwig von Beethoven. For this exhibition Klimt painted his famous Beethoven Frieze (1902), 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.
Klimt produced some of his most celebrated paintings during his time with the Secession, which lasted until 1908. These works include the portraits Judith I (1901) and Adele Bloch-Bauer I (c.1907), Field of Poppies (1907), and The Kiss (1907-08), all of which comprised the artist's so-called "Golden Phase." Klimt's personal style, which richly combined elements of both the pre-modern and modern eras, had fully matured by this time. His use of gold and silver leaf recalled Byzantine mosaics; his application of repeated coils and whorls suggested both abstraction and Mycenaean ornamentation; and his portraits of women - such as Expectation (1905-09) - often combined a modern sensuality with the motifs of Oriental art and Japanese "pillar prints," of which Klimt was a devout collector.
Late Period and Death
In the last decade or so of his life, Klimt divided much of his time between his studio and garden in Heitzing, and the country home of the Floge family, where he and Emilie spent many days together. Although there was unquestionably a romantic bond between them, it is widely believed the two never gave in to physical desire. During these summers Klimt produced many of his stunning, yet largely underappreciated plein air landscape paintings, such as The Park (1909-10), often from the vantage point of a row boat or an open field. In addition to being a devoted family man, Klimt had two loves: painting and women, and his appetite for both was seemingly insatiable.
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.
Additionally, many of Klimt's later portraits of women have been praised for the artist's greater attention to character and a supposed new concern for likeness. These features are evident in his second portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1912), a portrait of the young Mada Primavesi (1913), and 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 evidently lost his will to live, and on February 6th he died from influenza. By the time of his death, abstract painting, not to mention Cubism, Futurism, Dada and Constructivism, had all captured the imaginations (and wallets) of Europeans across the continent. Gustav 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.
Gustav Klimt never married; never painted a single self-portrait; and never claimed to be revolutionizing art in any way. He seldom left his native Austria, and on the one occasion he visited Paris, he left thoroughly unimpressed. With the groundbreaking Secession, Klimt's primary aim was to call attention to underappreciated 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. But his influence on other artists and subsequent movements was quite limited. Much in the way Klimt revered Hans Makart but eventually deviated from that 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.
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 change and radical ideas, and these traits are clearly evident in his paintings.
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Gustav Klimt
| Gustav Klimt and "50 Shades of Grey" |
Entry on Art Story Blog
| Klimt and Egon Schiele Intertwined Fates in Paint |
Student-mentor relationship that evolved into groundbreaking art, parody, and love triangles - on The Art Story Blog
| Klimt (World of Art) |
By Frank Whitford
| Gustav Klimt: Painter of Women (Pegasus Series) |
By Susanna Partsch
| Gustav Klimt: In Search of the Total Artwork |
By Jane Kallir
| Gustav Klimt: Art Nouveau Visionary |
By Eva di Stefano
| The Life and Work of Gustav Klimt |
Websites with many artworks and excellent timeline
| The Klimt Collection |
Reproductions of Klimt's works in New York City
| Lauder's Openness Is Sought on Artwork |
By Robin Pogrebin
| Klimts Go to Market; Museums Hold Their Breath |
By Michael Kimmelman
| 4 Returned Klimt Works Heading to Auction |
By Carol Vogel
| All that glitters is golden: $135 million selling price for Klimt makes perfect sense |
By Alan G. Artner
| Doctors versus artists: Gustav Klimt's Medicine |
By Maria Bitsori
| Sensualist With a Cause in Old Vienna |
By Roberta Smith