Gustav Klimt (1862–1918)

"There is nothing special about me. I am a painter who paints day after day from morning to night ...Who ever wants to know something about me ... ought to look carefully at my pictures." – Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt was born in Baumgarten, near Vienna, the son of a metal engraver and one of seven children.

From 1876, Gustav and his brother Ernst studied decorative and applied arts at Vienna's School of Arts and Crafts where they and were trained in a conventional, academic style.

Public commissions

After graduating in 1883, the Klimt brothers and fellow student Franz Matsch formed The Painters' Company and attracted several commissions to decorate theatre interiors, including the new Burgtheater in Vienna.

Gustav KLIMT
Austria 1862–1918
Interior view of the old Burgtheater 1887-88
watercolour, gouache, gold
91.2 x 103.0 cm
Wien Museum, Vienna
Commissioned by the City of Vienna, 1887

Under Imperial patronage, Gustav Klimt continued to execute important public commissions and in 1888, aged 26, won the Emperor's prize for his painting of the Old Burgtheater.

The commission to create ceiling paintings for Vienna University's faculties of Medicine, Jurisprudence and Philosophy resulted in a significant shift in Klimt's art from his traditional history and salon paintings to a more personal vision. These mural-sized allegorical paintings – idiosyncratic in their symbolism, enigmatic and confronting – were rejected by the university, creating a public scandal.

Secession years

In 1897, Klimt became one of the founding members and president of the Vienna Secession, a group of artists, architects and designers who became synonymous with modern Viennese style.

Gustav Klimt
Austria 1862-1918
Emilie Flöge 1902
oil on canvas
178.0 x 80.0 cm
Wien Museum, Vienna

During this period, Klimt completed the Beethoven Frieze, which was critically attacked following its exhibition in 1902. Klimt consequently withdrew from public commissions and relied on private patronage, mainly painting portraits of wealthy Jewish Viennese women.

Klimt is believed to have had sexual liaisons with many of the women whose portraits he painted, as well as with his models (he fathered at least 14 illegitimate children) while remaining in a life-long relationship with fashion designer Emily Flöge.

Flöge was vital to many of the decorative elements in Klimt's art – his collaboration in the designs of her Reform dress inspired elements in his paintings. And each summer his landscape paintings where made while holidaying with Flöge and her family.

'Golden' paintings

Gustav KLIMT
Austria 1862–1918
Fritza Riedler 1906
oil on canvas
152.0 x 134.0 cm
Belvedere, Vienna

Klimt's travels to Ravenna, Italy, in 1903 ushered in his signature 'golden' style of paintings, though he continued to work on allegorical paintings, predominantly on the theme of the 'Eternal Feminine'.

In 1905, Klimt left the Secession but remained instrumental in organising two major exhibitions of contemporary Viennese art and design in 1908 and 1909 (his own especially in the first of these Kunstschau or art shows) and brought the work of major European artists to Vienna.

Gustav KLIMT
Austria 1862–1918
Baby (Cradle) 1917–18
oil on canvas
110.9 x 110.4 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Gift of Otto and Franciska Kallir with the help of the Carol and Edwin Gaines Fullinwider Fund

Evolving style

Klimt’s style gradually changed, in part due to the influence of artists such as Egon Schiele and the Expressionist movement, and his later paintings are more naturalistic and freely painted. He also established a reputation for his elegant, erotic drawings.

© 2011 National Gallery of Victoria