The Austrian painter Gustav Klimt is one of the most celebrated and famous Western painters of all time. He became famous for his sumptuous paintings using actual gold leaves, such as “The Kiss,” one of the most popular paintings in the world. Gustav Klimt became one of the foremost representatives of Art Nouveau.
Early Life and Career
Gustav Klimt was born in July 1862 in Baumgarten, Austria, to a family of immigrants, along with six brothers and sisters. Due to their difficult financial situation, Klimt’s parents were always in search of affordable living circumstances, forcing them to travel a lot. Their situation only got worse after the Vienna stock market crashed when the artist was 11 years old. In the following year, his young sister passed away, impacting him deeply, but mainly his older sister and mother, Anna Klimt, who was also artistically inclined.
In 1876, 14-years-old Klimt began attending the Vienna School of Applied Arts and Crafts, where he studied architectural drawing with a scholarship. Klimt’s younger brother also joined the school. They later teamed up to complete many commissions of murals in museums, churches, and theaters.
In 1888, he received a commission to create paintings of the old Burgtheater, a sumptuous theater about to be demolished. Instead of creating a composition with a point of view placed in the audience looking to the stage, as it was common for this kind of work, Klimt did the opposite. The artist painted a point of view looking to the audience and the beautiful interior of the theater. This painting perfectly exemplifies early Gustav Klimt paintings, showing a more academic style and subdued color palette.
However, Klimt’s work began to change, breaking away from many of the Classical standards used by academic artists, and sought inspiration in the art of the Byzantine era.
In 1897, along with painters, architects, and sculptors, Klimt formed the Union of Austrian Artists, more widely known as the Vienna Secession, and was the first president of the group. By that time, the main art venues favored more conservative artworks over the Avant-garde production, forcing modern artists to find alternative ways of promoting their art. After around eight years, Klimt and many other artists left the group as they still struggled to maintain their sales.
A noteworthy painting of this period is his beautiful “Palas Athene”. Here, the artist chose the goddess of wisdom from Greek mythology, a recurring theme in Academic art. However, his style strays away from academic realism, showing looser lines and brushstrokes, creating a hazy final result.
The Austrian artist was fairly reclusive and spent eight to nine hours working in his studio and rejecting guests. Consequently, little is known about his working methods. On his studio door was a note stating that knocking would be pointless since he would not open.
At the age of thirty, Klimt was at last financially stable. He went through the tragic loss of his father and younger brother, leaving him responsible for his family. After many years of disengagement from the art world, Klimt returned with a stronger desire to oppose the artistic establishment by creating his own unique art. Gustav Klimt art became even more symbolic but avoided conventional iconography.
Around 1901, the artist finished Medicine, the second of a series of three pieces the artist was commissioned back in 1894. It was commissioned by the University of Vienna to create paintings representing Medicine, Philosophy, and Jurisprudence, to be later painted at the university’s Great Hall. However, Klimt’s artworks were very cryptic, not clearly conveying these themes. Other than that, the paintings were harshly condemned by critics for being “pornographic” and perverted for depicting entrancing bodies of nude women. Sadly, these monumental artworks were destroyed by the Nazi regime, and only photographic records remain.
Klimt’s Golden Phase
Gustav Klimt’s Golden Phase is arguably his most famous production. Although he already used gold to create his compositions in “Judith I” (1901) and “Palas Athene” (1898), it was around 1907 that the use of gold leaves would take full form. By that time, the artist created “The Kiss” and “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”, two of his most famous masterpieces, the first also being one of the most known paintings of all time.
“Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer” is a beautiful portrait depicting the artist’s favorite model and close friend. Adele, the wife of a wealthy banker and sugar producer, is rendered in a more realistic manner and is immersed in a sumptuous abstract world. As if lost in a Gustav Klimt golden forest, the woman seems engulfed by wealth.
Gustav Klimt continued to lead a successful career and was highly respected, even sponsoring young artists, such as Egon Schiele. During his later career, the artist created more landscapes, such as his beautiful “Apple Tree” and “The Park”. He also continued to paint vibrant and colorful portraits. Gustav Klimt died on February 6, 1918, after pneumonia caused by the Spanish flu and suffering a stroke.
Gustav Klimt left his mark in art history as one of the most controversial and innovative painters of his time. Although his use of nudity caused much controversy, he still received a significant number of commissions from his patrons and enjoyed a successful career. Although Gustav Klimt drawings and paintings are famous for depictions of seductive women, they also became known for their intense landscapes.