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Gustav Klimt was an influential Austrian painter of the late 19th Century, one of the founders and leaders of the Vienna Secession art movement, although he would later move beyond it.
Klimt was born in Vienna, in 1862, into a lower middle-class family of Moravian origin. His father, Ernst Klimt, worked as an engraver and goldsmith, earning very little, and the artist's childhood was spent in relative poverty. The painter would have to support his family financially throughout his life.
Together with his two brothers, Gustav was sent to the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, in order to follow in his father's footsteps as an engraver and craftsman. The School of Arts and Crafts had been founded as the lower-class version of the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. However, the education it gave its students was excellent, covering both the technical and historical aspects of art. Additionally, exceptional students were given the chance to attend classes at the Academy itself.
Klimt soon demonstrated his talent and would be commissioned to paint several large decorative works by the age of twenty. Together with his younger brother Ernst Klimt and Franz Matsch, who would also become a notable painter of the period, Gustav worked on designs for the 1879 Festzug -- a procession intended to celebrate the 25th wedding anniversary of Emperor Franz Josef and the Empress Elizabeth. The director of the project was Hans Makart, the leading Austrian painter of the day.
While Hans Makart was a classicist, his use of bright, vivid colors and the widespread use of symbolic objects in his paintings would set the trends for the entire period, and would have a profound influence on Viennese Art Noveau and the Secession movement.
After finishing his studies, Klimt opened a studio together with Matsch and Ernst Klimt. The trio specialized in interior decoration, particularly theaters. Already by the 1880s, they were renowned for their skill and decorated theaters throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and much of their work can still be seen there. In 1885, they were commissioned to decorate the Empress Elizabeth's country retreat, the Villa Hermes near Vienna (Midsummer Night's Dream). In 1886, the painters were asked to decorate the Viennese Burgtheater, effectively recognizing them as the foremost of decorators of Austria. Works that Klimt painted for this project include the Cart of Thespis, the Altars of Dionysosand Apollo and the Theater at Taormina, as well as scenes from the Shakespearean Globe Theater.
At the completion of the work in 1888, the painters were awarded the Golden Service Cross (Verdienstkreuz), and Klimt was commissioned to paint the Auditorium of the Old Burgtheater, the work that would bring him to the height of his fame. This painting, with its almost photographic accuracy is considered one of the greatest achievements in Naturalist painting. As a result, Klimt was awarded the Emperor's Prize and became a fashionable portraitist, as well as the leading artist of his day. Paradoxically, it was at this point, with a fabulous career as a classicist painter unfolding before him, that Klimt began turning towards the radical new styles of the Art Noveau.
In the coming few years, the artistic trio fell apart. Franz Matsch wanted to branch out into portrait painting, which he did with some success. Meanwhile, Gustav Klimt's changing style made it impossible for them to work together on any project. Furthermore, Ernst Klimt died in 1892, shortly after the death of their father.
Struck by this double tragedy, Gustav retreated from public life, focusing on experimentation and the study of contemporary styles of art, as well as historical styles that were overlooked within the establishment, such as Japanese, Chinese, Ancient Egyptian and Mycenaean art. In 1893, he began work on his last public commission: the paintings Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence, for the University of Vienna. The three would only be completed in the early 1900s, and they would be criticized severely for their radical style and what was, according to the mores of the time, lewdness. Unfortunately, the paintings were destroyed during the Second World War and only black-and-white reproductions of them remain.
The painter was not alone in his opposition to the Austrian artistic establishment of the time. In 1897, he, together with forty other notable Viennese artists, resigned from the Academy of Arts and founded the "Union of Austrian Painters", more commonly known as the Secession. Klimt was immediately elected president. While the Union had no clearly defined goals or support for particular styles, it was against the classicist establishment, which it found to be oppressive.
The group held their first exhibition in March 1898. Klimt was responsible for designing its poster, a line drawing called Theseus Fighting the Minotaur. The show met with great success, since the Viennese public proved very responsive to the new ideas. Even the Emperor Franz Josef himself visited the exhibition, and the Secessionists quickly found patrons to support their artistic experiments financially.
In 1898, Klimt received his first major commission as a Secessionist. He was paid to decorate the music room in the mansion of one Nikolaus Dumba, a Greek businessman living in Vienna. Klimt designed the furniture, décor and painted two works: Music and Schubert at the Piano, both of which were unfortunately destroyed.
It was also at around this time that Klimt would begin producing the beautiful portraits that would be one of his greatest legacies. These include the Portrait of Sonja Knips (1898) and the Portrait of Serena Lederer (1899). Klimt was a perfectionist, drawing hundreds of sketches for every portrait that he painted, often persisting even after the sitters were perfectly satisfied with the result.
True to his education, Klimt continued to paint classical subjects, such as Pallas Athene (1898), Nuda Veritas (1899) and Judith and Holopherne (1901), though his interpretation was rather different from the traditional one, and was met with criticism. It was also at this time that Klimt finally produced Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence for the University of Vienna, and the public, especially the University professors, were scandalized. In response, the artist painted Goldfish (1901-02), featuring nudes in provocative poses. At the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, Philosophy earned a Gold Medal.
In 1902, Klimt finished the Beethoven Frieze, in which he tried to express the ideas of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in the painted medium. At around this time, he began designing fabrics for his long-time mistress Emilie Floge, who owned a successful fashion-house in Vienna. This work would influence his painting style to a great degree.
In 1903, he held a large solo exhibition, for the first time showing his "mood landscapes," works such as Fruit Trees (1901) and Beech Grove I (1902), which were greeted quite warmly by the public. He also exhibited the Portrait of Emilie Floge (1902), painted in what would become one of Klimt's trademark styles: a lone woman in a plain environment wearing an elaborate outfit.
In 1903, he visited Italy twice and was profoundly influenced by the golden mosaics of Ravenna. This marked the beginning of his "golden style."
Despite the favorable reception of the 1903 exhibition, his work was getting too radical even for the Secession and in 1905, Klimt together with some of his friends, including Carl Moll, Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser and Otto Wagner broke away from the Secessionists. The artist would distance himself from real life, focusing on the occult and spiritual instead of the sociopolitical. He bought his works Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence back from the University of Vienna. His paintings of this time show the artist's fascination with life and death. Two such works are Hope (1903) and The Three Ages of Women (1905).
That year, the Belgian businessman Alphonse Stoclet commissioned him to create his last great mural project, the Stoclet Friezes.
Klimt continued working in his unique style of portraiture and in the years 1904 through 1908, he painted the portraits of Hermine Gallia (1904), Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein (1905), Fritza Riedler (1906) and Adele Bloch Bauer I (1907). This is also considered the high point of the Golden Style with such works as Danae (1907), Hope II (1907) and The Kiss (1908), which is probably Klimt's most famous work.
In 1909, Klimt exhibited Judith II. That fall, he traveled to Paris where he met with post-Impressionist painters such as Henri de Toulouse Lautrec and the Fauve group. The artist was fascinated with their style of painting, and saw his own Golden Style as inferior by comparison. His painting Lady with Hat and Featherboa reflects the influence of his Paris trip.
By 1910, Klimt had moved past his Golden Style. One of his last pictures in that style was Death and Life (1908-1910). In 1911, the painting was shown at the International Exhibition in Rome, where it won first place. However, the artist was dissatisfied with the work, and in 1912, he changed the background from gold to blue.
In 1911, the Stoclet Friezes were installed in the Stoclet mansion in Brussels. Paintings of this later period are characterized by jumbles of soft colors, though many of the elements are in keeping with his earlier work. A few such paintings include the portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912), Mada Primavesi (1912) and The Virgin (1913).
In 1913, Klimt showed The Virgin in Munich, and held an exhibition in Budapest. In 1914, the artist exhibited in Prague, together with the Secession group, with which he had mended his ties, to a degree.
In 1915, the artist's mother died, affecting him strongly. He began to paint in more somber tones, producing works such as the portraits of Barbara Floge (1915), Charlotte Pulitzer (1915) and Friedericke Maria Beer (1916), and Friends (1916), The Bride (1917) and Adam and Eve (1917). The two latter works would never be finished.
Klimt died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1918. He continued painting until the very end and many of his final works remained unfinished.
Gustav Klimt: Life and Work by Susanna Partsch. New Line Books, 2006.
Gustav Klimt: Modernism in the Making by Colin B. Bailey. Harry N Abrams, 2001.
Gustav Klimt: From Drawing to Painting by Christian M. Nebehay. Harry N Abrams, 1994.
Gustav Klimt: Painter of Women by Susanna Partsch. Prestel Publishing, 2006.
Gustav Klimt: Drawings & Watercolors by Rainer Metzger. Thames & Hudson, 2006.
Gustav Klimt: Erotic Sketches by Gustav Klimt. Prestel Publishing, 2005.
Gustav Klimt: Landscapes by Stephan Koja. Prestel Publishing, 2006.
Biography by Yuri Mataev