Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt Film

The film lasts for 13.21 minutes and is suitable for showing to older children in the UK. Other jurisdictions may have different attitudes relating to what can be shown to children, so please view the video first.

Gustav KLIMT

Early Life

Gustav Klimt was born at Baumgarten near Vienna on the 14th of July 1862, the 2nd of seven children. His father was engraver and Goldsmith from Bohemia and Gustav was the eldest of 7 children. It was an unusually talented family. His brother George like his father became a goldsmith. Ernest, his brother, showed the same precocious talent for drawing and painting that Klimt himself displayed. At the age of 14, in 1876, Gustav Klimt and his brother Ernst were sent to the newly established school of Applied Arts in Vienna. Over the next seven years, they learnt to master not only oil painting, but mosaic and fresco techniques as well. In his spare time Klimt earned extra money by drawing portraits from photographs. This helped him to perfect his ability to capture accurate likenesses of people.

Training and Development

The drawing professor was so impressed with Klimt’s ability, his brother Ernst and fellow student Franz Matsch, that he recommended the trio for a number of prestigious commissions. Gustav Klimt was just 17 when he helped design the pageant for Emperor Franz Josef’s silver wedding celebrations. Gustav finished his training at the school of Applied Art in Vienna in 1883 and set up the Artist’s Company together with Ernst and Franz Matsch. Success came quickly. Soon they were working on decorative projects, for wealthy owners of villas in Vienna and surrounding provinces.

Prestigious Commissions

The ultimate recognition came when they were given the prestigious job of decorating the ceiling and staircases of the newly built Burgtheater in Vienna. The theme of the decoration was to be the history of art from ancient Greece to the Renaissance. The result was a quite remarkable series of portraits and images using a mixtures of styles. They started work on the Burgtheater paintings in 1886 and finished them 2 years later. Shortly afterwards, Gustav Klimt was awarded the Golden Cross of Merit for his work on the project.

1890 saw Gustav Klimt complete one of his earliest portraits, that of Joseph Pembauer, the famous Viennese pianist, combining both naturalistic portraiture and a stylised decorative background. This combination of styles would be the foundation on which his future portraits would be based. In 1892 Ernst and his father died and for a while Klimt produced very little. But in 1894 he and Matsch were asked by the Ministry of Education, to produce a series of designs for the ceiling of the Great Hall at Vienna University. After a great deal of debate it was agreed that Klimt should tackle three panels on the themes of philosophy, medicine and jurisprudence. This represented three of the university’s Faculties. It was a mammoth undertaking and something of an artistic and physical challenge for Klimt.

Critical Reviews

Gustav Klimt exhibited the first picture, ‘philosophy’ at the secession Exhibition in 1900. The critics had a field day, accusing him of producing a painting that was chaotic, nonsensical. They claimed it to be out of keeping with the intended setting, because it was a completely different style to Matsch’s work. The Ministry of Education eventually approved his ceiling paintings in 1900. Klimt was so offended by the outcry that he abandoned the scheme in 1905, denouncing overburdening censorship and lack of artistic freedom.

The Fight for Artistic Freedom

His battle between artistic freedom and conservative attitudes to art became public in 1897 when Klimt left the Cooperative Society of Austrian artists for the newly founded Vienna Secession. This was a radical group of young artists who were against Vienna’s inward looking provincial view of art. Instead they chose to promote more international trends in art and the breaking of barriers between fine and applied art. They published their ideas through their magazine Ver Sacrum. Gustav Klimt was soon elected as the Secession’s first president.

To Viennese Society, Gustav Klimt appeared to be part of the establishment. Privately he was completely the opposite. He was a passionate champion of individual and artistic freedom. A bohemian who was more at home wondering around his studio in his huge, blue monk’s smock, than the suit adopted by many of the successful painters of his generation. However, the scandal of the university paintings did not have a devastating effect upon Klimt’s career. It’s true he received no more official commissions, but there were plenty of private clients interested in his work. There were also many artistically inclined wives of Viennese industrialists, who were attracted to his ability to paint portraits of beautiful women in elegantly languid and flattering poses. Portraits made Klimt a lot of money as wealthy Society women loved his unconventional and unorthodox approach to painting.

Beethoven Frieze

In 1902 the Leipzig sculptor Max Klinger arranged to exhibit a statue of Beethoven at the secession building in Vienna. Surprisingly, the building was nicknamed the Golden Cabbage. As a tribute to Klinger, Klimt and his friends refurbished the entire secession building as a kind of Beethoven’s temple. Klimt’s contribution was a frieze running along 3 walls of a room consisting of four main scenes suggested by Beethoven 9th choral symphony.

Emilie Floge

In 1902 he produced this portrait of Emilie Floge. This stunning image marks the beginning of a new phase in Klimt’s art. This phase is characterized by his use of large detailed decorative patterns combined with realistic depictions of faces and hands. Emilie Floge was the younger sister of Ernst’s wife. She was a fashion designer who owned a fashion shop in Vienna and was Klimt’s companion for more than 25 years. Gustav was genuinely devoted to Emily. He spent almost every summer for 20 years with her and her family at fashionable Lakeside resorts. Here he would indulge his love of swimming, rowing and motorboats. Gustav and Emilie never married or had children. It was during these times that Klimt produced many of his landscape paintings.

In 1905 he painted a portrait of the daughter of the wealthy industrialist Karl Wittgenstein who became one of Klimt’s most important patrons. He made her face and hands seem extraordinary alive. By contrast the dress and the shawl were painted in quietly restrained and subtle white on white fashion. She didn’t like the portrait, thinking it made her look too innocent, timid and girlish.

Landscape Painting and Palais Stoclet

He allowed his garden to become totally overgrown and would enjoy many hours painting pictures of it from very close range. He also continued to paint portraits. A good example being the portrait of Fritza Riedler, who was the German wife of a top Viennese civil servant.
In 1904 Klimt was asked to produce drawings for a frieze of three mosaics for a room in the newly built Palais Stoclet in Brussels. The work was completed in 1911. The frieze is of indeterminate content and open to a variety of interpretations In fact Klimt himself rarely mentioned the piece all, although, he did once describe the single woman in the picture, as simply as a dancer. This period coincides with what is regarded as Gustav Klimt’s golden phase, because of the gold leaf that appears in many of his paintings.

The Kiss

The most spectacular painting Klimt produced during his golden phase, and his most famous painting was The Kiss. He created a wonderful balance between the glittering geometric ornamentation and bed of flowers and the emotional force of the two figures expressed through their compact kneeling pose and powerful embrace. Surely, The Kiss represents the ultimate in human fulfillment.

Klimt was now at the height of his powers and his popularity. He regularly contributed work to international exhibitions. For example, in 1911 he contributed 8 paintings to a major art exhibition in Rome and was awarded the first prize for his painting Death and Life.


During winters he would work in his studio painting portraits or working on commissions. Most summers would be spent painting landscapes around Attersee in the Saltzkammergut, a lakes and alpine region near Salzburg. In 1913 he spent July and August around Lake Garda, in Italy painting two paintings of small lakeside villages as though from a boat.

Gustav Klimt commanded remarkably high prices for his portraits, which was just as well because he painted very slowly often making changes. What was annoying from his patrons point of view, was that he would work on number of paintings at the same time.

In 1917 Klimt became an honorary member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Perhaps this was just compensation considering the Ministry of Education had rejected his professorship for the fourth time.

His Final Year

On the 11th January 1918 Klimt suffered a stroke in his flat in Vienna which paralysed his right side. Hopes of a recovery faded when he contracted pneumonia. He died on the 6th of February aged just 55, a few months before the complete collapse of the austro-hungarian empire. This had been the most exciting period in Viennese cultural history. Gustav Klimt was a lifelong bachelor who had countless liaisons during his lifetime, usually with his models. It is rumoured he fathered more than a dozen children along the way. But it was Emilie Floge who was his inspiration and for almost half his life, his most enduring relationship.

Perhaps Klimt himself best summed up his life’s work when he said, “I have never painted a self-portrait. I am less interested in myself as a subject for painting than I am in other people, above all women.”

Paul Priestley – Artist in School