Gustav Klimt: Life And Works

Gustav Klimt: life and works

Gustav Klimt (July 14, 1862 – February 6, 1918) was an Austrian symbolist painter and one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Secession movement. Klimt is noted for his paintings, murals, sketches, and other objets d’art. Klimt’s primary subject was the female body, and his works are marked by a frank eroticism. In addition to his figurative works, which include allegories and portraits, he painted landscapes. Among the artists of the Vienna Secession, Klimt was the most influenced by Japanese art and its methods.

Early in his artistic career, he was a successful painter of architectural decorations in a conventional manner. As he developed a more personal style, his work was the subject of controversy that culminated when the paintings he completed around 1900 for the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna were criticized as pornographic. He subsequently accepted no more public commissions, but achieved a new success with the paintings of his “golden phase,” many of which include gold leaf. Klimt’s work was an important influence on his younger contemporary Egon Schiele.


Gustav Klimt biography

Gustav Klimt art

Gustav Klimt facts

Gustav Klimt paintings

Gustav Klimt quotes

Gustav Klimt biography

An influential painter and the founder of the Vienna Secession art movement, Gustav Klimt dominated the art scene in the 19th century Austria. Till date, his art works demand high respect and are widely revered in the art circles. Klimt chose to go off the beaten track of conventional and traditional academic art and adopted the new trend in European modern art. He is known for his decorative art, a genre that most of his contemporaries chose not to adopt. He was the most renowned proponent of Art Nouveau, a genre of art that was inspired by natural forms and structures. One of the most celebrated artists of the 19thcentury, Klimt’s paintings portrayed women in sensual and erotic tones. It was the presence of erotic appeal in his paintings that is accountable for his being enlisted in the list of most controversial artists of his time. Gustav Klimt’s work were constantly criticised for their sexual elements, due to which he had to submit some of his works to religious authorities before exhibiting them. Some of best known paintings include, ‘Old Burgtheater in Vienna’, ‘The Kiss’ ‘Portrait of Baroness Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt’ and ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I’.

Childhood & Early Life

Gustav Klimt was born in Baumgarten, Austrian Empire, to Ernst Klimt the Elder, a gold engraver and Anna Klimt, a music aficionado. He was second of the seven children of the couple.
Until 1833, he studied architectural painting at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts. During this time, he lived in poverty. He initially began his career painting interior murals and ceilings on large public buildings in Vienna, Austria.


In 1888, he painted ‘Old Burgtheater in Vienna’, which was a painting of the old theatre that would soon be demolished. The painting was well appreciated for its photographic realism.
In 1897, he founded an association for artists called, ‘The Vienna Secession’. He served as its first President. The association also had its own magazine, ‘Ver Sacrum’. His liaison with the association lasted until 1908.

From 1888 until 1890, he worked on his painting, ‘Sappho’, which represented the Greek lyric poet named Sappho, who was born in Lesbos, an island.

In 1890, he painted, ‘Portrait of pianist Joseph Pembauer’, which, as the title describes, was a portrait of the piano teacher Joseph Pembauer. The painting was appreciated for its vivid and detailed pragmatism.

In 1894, he was commissioned to adorn the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna – a project that he could complete only by 1900. However, the three paintings that he had produced, Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence were sharply criticized for their radical themes and eventually destroyed.

In 1895, he painted, ‘Love’, which was a part of the collection titled, ‘Allegories and Emblems’. The painting was known for its elements of metaphorical intensity and psychological nuances.
In 1899, he painted, ‘NudaVeritas’, which was a symbolic painting of a nude woman holding a mirror.

In 1901, he completed the painting, ‘Judith and the Head of Holofernes’, also known as ‘Judith’. The work was inspired from the biblical character with the name, Judith.

Completed between 1901 and 1902, his painting ‘Goldfish’, was one of his most controversial paintings. The painting had images of women who were baring their back.

In 1906, he painted ‘Portrait of FritzaRiedler’, which was one of his most showcased works. The painting was a good example of the use of geometric elements.

Between 1907 and 1908, he worked on his painting, ‘The Kiss’, which is one of the many paintings that he released during his ‘Golden Phase’. A squared canvas with images of two lovers embracing each other, the painting became one of his most acclaimed works.

Painted in 1907, his painting, ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I’, is one of his most revered paintings. It was sold for $135 million to businessman Ronald Steven Laude in 2006.

Painted between 1908 and 1911, his painting, ‘Death and Life’, is one of his most exhibited paintings that received many anecdotes and awards including the first prize in the World Exhibition in Rome.

In 1910, he painted, ‘Lady with Feather’ which is also known by the name, ‘Black Feather Hat’. The painting depicts a woman with red hair wearing a disproportionate hat.

Completed between 1914 and 1916, his painting, ‘Portrait of Baroness Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt’, which had elements of abstract and serrated syntax.

Painted in 1918, ‘Adam and Eve’ is inspired from the biblical account of Adam and Eve. The painting has many symbolic elements and decorative elements.

Major Works

His painting ‘Old Burgtheater in Vienna’ is one his most critically acclaimed paintings known for its photographic realism. It was awarded a prize by The Emperor of Austria.

‘The Kiss’ is one of his most popular paintings and is widely regarded as a masterpiece belonging to the early modern period of art. The painting is preserved at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere Museum in the Belvedere Palace, Vienna.

Awards & Achievements

In 1888, he received the ‘Golden Order of Merit’, which was conferred upon him by Franz Josef I of Austria, for his contribution of painting murals in the Burgtheater in Vienna.

He was made honorary member of the University of Munich and University of Vienna.

Personal Life & Legacy

He was in a life-long relationship with Emilie Louise Floge, with whom he had fourteen children.

He died at the age of 53 in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, after suffering from stroke and pneumonia, due to influenza epidemic of the year. He was buried at the Hietzinger Cemetery in Hietzing, Vienna.


This Austrian symbolic painter never painted a self-portrait as he claimed that he is more interested in other people than in himself.

Gustav Klimt art

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.

Key Ideas

Klimt first achieved acclaim as a conventional academic painter, and received many commissions to paint public buildings. He later abandoned both the realism, and the approach to historical subject matter, that were characteristic of the 19th century. However, his interest in the decorative possibilities of painting could be seen as typical of the period’s love of grandeur and elaboration. It might also be interpreted as an attempt to reconcile the natural and the artificial, a typical preoccupation of the 19th century, as modern technology began to transform the world beyond recognition.

While some of Klimt’s contemporaries were vigorously opposed to decoration, Klimt was surely the period’s most outstanding exponent. He strongly believed in the equality of fine and decorative art, and some of his work shows his ambition to create a Gesamtkunstwerk (“total work of art”), a union of the visual arts that might be created through ornament. He was also closely associated with the Wiener Werkstatte, the design studio which worked to improve the quality of everyday objects.

Klimt was one of the most influential exponents of Art Nouveau, the movement which spread throughout Europe in the late 19th century. His approach was inspired by the ethereal atmosphere of work by artists such as Aubrey Beardsley, and by some aspects of Impressionist technique; it was also determinedly eclectic, borrowing motifs from Byzantine, Greek and Egyptian art.

Although his art is now widely popular, it was neglected for much of the 20th century, and provoked opposition in his own day, facing charges of obscenity and objections to his lightly allusive approach to symbolism. His treatment of erotic themes was generally delicate and veiled in his paintings, but his drawings gave full expression to his considerable sexual appetite.

Most Important Art

Medicine (1900-1907)


Artwork description & Analysis: This detail from Klimt’s Medicine shows the figure of Hygeia, the mythological daughter of the god of medicine. Klimt was loyal to traditional depictions of the goddess, providing her with a snake and the cup of Lethe. However, above Hygeia, Klimt painted a large column of light, and placed on either side several nude figures and, most notably, a skeleton to symbolize Death. For this Klimt received much criticism from physicians and university officials who were offended by what they saw as his lurid, almost pornographic depiction, of the human form, and for suggesting that the healing arts were unable to prevent death. Klimt’s University paintings, of which Medicine was a part, were some of his first works to explore the female form in vivid detail.
Oil on canvas – Destroyed in 1945 at Schloss Immendorf, a castle in lower Austria

Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907)

Adele Bloch-Bauer I

Of all the many women Klimt painted from life, Adele Bloch-Bauer, the wife of a Viennese banker (and Klimt’s lover). 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

The Kiss (1907-08)

The Kiss

Artwork description & Analysis: This is perhaps Klimt’s most popular and renowned celebration of sexual love. In The Kiss, the woman is being absorbed by the man, while both figures are engulfed by the body of gold in which they lie. The background suggests a night sky, while the bodies teeter at the edge of a flowery meadow, as if they are in danger of cascading into the darkness. Much like Adele Bloch-Bauer I, and other paintings of its ilk, representational forms only barely emerge from a highly ornate but ultimately abstract form, in this case the golden shroud, beautifully juxtaposed against the brown and green. Indeed, Klimt’s biographer Frank Whitford has pointed out that earlier studies for the picture show the man with a beard, suggesting that he might be meant to represent the artist himself, while the woman represents Block-Bauer. The Kiss is considered the masterpiece of the artist’s “Golden Period,” and although the decoration is particularly elaborate, Klimt used it for symbolic purposes, with rectangular forms evoking masculinity, while circular forms evoke the feminine.
Oil, gold and silver leaf on canvas – Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna

The Park (1909-10)

The Park

Artwork description & Analysis: Pointillism clearly influenced this painting, even though, unlike Seurat, Klimt never expressed an interest in utilizing optics in his work. Nine-tenths of The Park is a solid mass of foliage, thus if not for the tree trunks and strips of grass at the bottom, this composition would be wholly abstract. The painting’s naturalistic elements are offset by Klimt’s decorative mosaic of blue, green and yellow dots, which are rendered representational only with the aid of the work’s lower section. This is a visually demanding work, and possibly one of Klimt’s finest plein air paintings (although many of his landscapes were finished in the studio, all were begun in the open air). He painted these throughout his career, but to this day they are celebrated far less than his portraits.
Oil on canvas – The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Gustav Klimt facts

  1. Klimt was a leader in the Vienna Secession movement. Also known as the Union of Austrian Artists, the Vienna Secession was a collective of painters and sculptors that was founded in 1897. Klimt acted as the first president of the Vienna Secession and sought to unite Viennese artists in all styles for the purpose of inspiration. Even though he left the union after eight years due to differing artistic opinions, Klimt was instrumental in creating a place where brilliant young artists of the period were nurtured.
  2. Femme fatales were a main focus for Klimt. Although Klimt was extremely private about his love life, women were the inspiration behind some of Klimt’s most famous pieces. His focus on the female form and penchant for creating racy paintings drew criticism from both political and religious leaders. The disapproval of his work led Klimt to experiment with painting landscapes in addition to abstract portraits.
  3. Egon Schiele was heavily influenced by Klimt. After he left the Vienna Secession, Klimt was still eager to mentor young talent. He saw talent in a young Austrian artist named Egon Schiele and spent many years mentoring him and assisting him with exhibitions. Schiele became a successful artist in his own right and even helped usher in the Expressionist movement, but much of his emphasis on the human form can be traced back to Gustav Klimt.
  4. Iconic Klimt paintings have sold for record prices. Klimt achieved relative success while he was still alive, but posthumously became one of the most recognized artists in the world. His iconic artwork is in high demand, with prints still being produced today. Klimt’s paintings even set a record when “Frau Adele Bloch-Bauer” was sold for $135 million in New York City in 2006.

Gustav Klimt quotes

Art is a line around your thoughts.

I can paint and draw. I believe this myself and a few other people say that they believe this too. But I’m not certain of whether it’s true.

Today I want to start working again in earnest – I’m looking forward to it because doing nothing does become rather boring after a while.

There is nothing that special to see when looking at me.

All art is erotic.

Even when I have to write a simple letter I’m scared stiff, as if faced with looming seasickness.

Even when I am being idle, I have plenty of food for thought, both early and late – thoughts both about and not about art. 

-when Egon Schiele, at age 17, asks if he might take him as a student…
Perhaps you can teach me something.

I’m a painter who paints day in day out, from morning till evening – figure pictures and landscapes, more rarely portraits.

After tea it’s back to painting – a large poplar at dusk with a gathering storm.

There is no self-portrait of me.

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.

True relaxation, which would do me the world of good, does not exist for me.

If the weather is good I go into the nearby wood – there I am painting a small beech forest (in the sun) with a few conifers mixed in. This takes until 8 ‘o clock.

On my first days here I did not start work immediately but, as planned, I took it easy for a few days – flicked through books, studied Japanese art a little. 

References and useful Resources

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