The art of Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) is often criticised as being of no relevance to the history of art, despite its innovation and great popularity. This series commemorates the centenary of Klimt’s death during the influenza pandemic of 1918, and traces the development of his art through his career, regardless of the opinion of modern critics.
Klimt is now known largely for his paintings of women in his distinctive version of Art Nouveau style, which are often openly erotic. One of my aims is to set these in the greater context of his life and work. In this I will look at paintings which are not wrapped in gold leaf, and many in which there is not a single human to be seen.
He began life as the son of an engraver, who in better times seems to have worked in gold. Living on the outskirts of the city of Vienna, the family income collapsed in 1873 when father’s work dried up, and Gustav Klimt and his six siblings were raised in poverty. In 1883, when he completing his schooling, Klimt went on to study architectural painting at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, now part of the University for Applied Arts in Vienna.
At the time, along with much of Vienna, Klimt was under the influence of the painter Hans Makart, and his early paintings such as Fable (1883) follow Makart’s classicist style and motifs. This academic nude is surrounded by creatures who feature in popular fables, such as those of Aesop, including a sleeping lion, white mice, storks, and a fox.
Klimt, together with his younger brother Ernst who followed Gustav in the same training, won a scholarship which relieved the family’s poverty, but he also supplemented their income by painting miniature portraits and preparing technical drawings. The two brothers teamed up with a third student at the school, forming an interior design contractors later known as the Kunstlercompagnie (The ‘Company of Artists’). From 1880, they carried out work on a series of decorative commissions in Vienna and beyond.
Idyll (1884) is an example of the mixture of classicist figurative painting and ornamentation which was typical of Klimt’s commercial work at the time. Over these early years in his career, it ensured that he was adept at painting both male and female nudes.
In 1887, the Kunstlercompagnie was commissioned to paint the walls of two large staircases in Vienna’s newly-built theatre. Among the theatrical scenes believed to have been painted by Gustav Klimt there is Theatre at Taormina, which was completed for its opening by Emperor Franz Joseph I in 1888.
Taormina is a village on the edge of the city of Messina on the east coast of Sicily, Italy, which in classical times was colonised by Greeks. The ruins of this ancient theatre still stand on the hillside, although the current structures appear to have been built in Roman times over an older Greek layout.
With the success of his decorative work, Klimt and his brother were able to travel at last, and visited Innsbruck, Salzburg, and the Königsee in 1888, going further afield in later years. His graphite and chalk drawing of the Allegory of Sculpture (1889) was one of a series which he made between 1886-89 for a tribute to Archduke Rainer, and later published in a series of graphic works.
In the summer of 1890, Gustav and Ernst visited Venice and Carinthia, in the far south of Austria. The following year, their company was commissioned to make paintings for the staircases of the new Art and Natural History Museums in Vienna, but in 1892, brother Ernst died, and the company was dissolved.
Klimt then concentrated on fine art painting, initially in works such as Two Girls with an Oleander (1892). The head of the nearer of the two young women is based on Francesco Laurana’s portrait bust of Isabella of Aragon (1488), which was and remains in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
The following year, he visited Hungary to paint an interior view of a theatre which won him a silver medal later that same year, and a gold medal in Antwerp in 1895.
He also returned to painting portraits. Not, this time, small watercolours, but more substantial works in oils like this Seated Young Girl (1894).
In 1894, Klimt was awarded the commission to paint the ceilings in a new Great Hall for the University of Vienna.
Some of these early paintings were unashamedly romantic, such as Love (1895).
This portrait of The Blind Man (1896) is very loose in its facture, an experiment in his style which Klimt didn’t pursue.
In 1897, Klimt was a founder-member of the Vienna Secession, and was elected its first president. Like the Munich and Berlin Secessions, in 1892 and 1893, this moved against the prevailing classicism – that of Klimt’s former inspiration, Hans Makart, in particular – and conservativism in art more generally. That summer was the first which he spent with Emilie Flöge (his brother’s widow’s sister) and her family in the Tyrol.
With work being started on the new exhibition building for the Secession, Klimt was hard at work on the paintings for the Great Hall of the university, and had to hire additional studio space to cope.
Portrait of a Lady with Cape and Hat (c 1897-98), drawn in black chalk and sanguine, is a closer precursor to the highly distinctive portraits which he was starting to paint.
Stephan Koja (2006) Gustav Klimt, Landscapes, Prestel. ISBN 978 3 7913 3717 3.
Rainer Metzger (2005) Gustav Klimt, Drawings & Watercolours, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 500 23826 4.
Various larger format books contain most or all of his figurative paintings.