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Gustav Klimt was born in Baumgarten, near Vienna, Austria in 1862. His father was
a gold engraver who was unsuccessful in business and the Klimt family lived in poverty.
Gustav Klimt began attending the Vienna Public Art School at the age of 14. His precocious
early talent was recognised and he received his first commissions while still studying.
Klimt was confident enough at the age of 21 to establish the Känstlercompanie (Company
of Artists) along with his brother Ernst and fellow artist Franz Matsch. They produced
work for theatres, churches and museums.
Klimt’s early career then was spent painting murals in Vienna’s public buildings
such as the Burgtheater and the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. These were such
a success that more work followed. Klimt produced his painting “Tragedy” for one
such commission. “Tragedy” signalled all the stylistic characteristics he became
famous for, the gold paint, the symbolism, the detail, the abstract space and of
course the female form.
Left ‘Judith’ 1901
Klimt was seen as a controversial figure in his lifetime. His work was often considered
too erotic and sexual and his symbolism too deviant. Much of his most erotic outpourings
can be seen in his pencil sketches. But enough made it onto canvas to cement his
In the early 1890s, Klimt met Emilie Flöge, his companion until the end of his life.
Emilie was the younger sister of his brother Ernst’s wife and it is debated whether
their relationship was ever sexual. Correspondence between the two is entirely platonic
indicating a sacred rather than a sexual love. Klimt idealised Emilie in painting
and in life. They were certainly close companions even though while they were together
he had a succession of mistresses including models, whores and charwoman and during
that period Klimt fathered at least 14 children!
In 1892 he was struck by a double tragedy when both his father and brother died.
In 1893 Klimt and Matsch were commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Great Hall
of the University of Vienna. Klimt and Matsch fell out and the works were greatly
delayed and not finished until the end of the century. The paintings, Medecine, Philosophy
and Jurisprudence proved to be very controversial and even called pornographic. The
moral outcry resulted in the paintings not being exhibited in the Great Hall. He
never accepted a public commission after that. (Sadly all three paintings were destroyed
by the retreating Nazis in 1945.)
In 1897 Klimt formed the Secession Mouvement to encourage young unconventional artists.
They published a magazine called Ver Sacrum, and succeeded in attracting important
foreign art to Vienna. Secession’s first exhibition of foreign art was a huge success
and Secession became the most important art movement in Vienna.
In 1900 he exhibited his painting ‘Philosophy’ at the Paris World Fair and even though
it was unfinished it won the Grand Prix.
In 1905 he resigned from Secession and formed a new movement , Kunstchau (Art Show).
His Golden Phase featured extensive use of gold leaf and brought him huge critical
and popular success. Arguably his most famous work “The Kiss” was painted in this
period. Between 1907 and 1909 he painted five society women wearing fur. In 2006
his 1907 painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer sold for a record $135,000,000 in New York.
He avoided cafe society and was in the happy position of his fame meaning that he
could be very selective in his clients. They came to him rather than the other way
around. Long before dress down Friday, he worked wearing just sandals, a long white
smock and no underwear.
His work featured many of the grand themes of life, love, sex, birth conception,
philosophy and death. His favourite subject was women.
He died of pneumonia in 1918 in his apartment.
Gustav Klimt paintings are amongst the best selling prints, posters and canvases
gracing living rooms, bedrooms and offices the world over. We hope you’ve enjoyed
our facts about Gustav Klimt and we’ve inspired you to own some Gustav Klimt art