Gustav Klimt

1862 - 1918 February 6 Vienna



Portrait of Herrmine Gallia, 1904


The inauguration of the Secession (1898) coincided with a marked change in Klimt's style; and his work became extraordinarily varied. This is in part owned to his exposure to foreign artists' work. The second exhibit displayed side by side Portrait of Sonja Knips and Pallas Athene. Sonja is imbued with a gentle impressionism that never entirely left Klimt's art. Athene is the emblem of the Secession with its "uncompromising frontality, stress upon surface pattern and cascade of golden armour, and shows the influence of Jugendstil painting", especially the painting of Franz von Struck who used the same subject for the seventh exhibition poster of the Munich Secession and in an oil painting. In his Athene, Klimt includes a tiny naked woman in the bottom left corner which becomes a miniature model for many variations on this theme of sexuality and the femme fatale in the future. Athene has a metal frame which was designed by Gustav and executed by his brother Georg.

In the early 1900's Klimt begins to experiment with gold and silver and the inlay of semi-precious stones. Pictures of this period are criticized as not being proper paintings, but objects of applied art. The Stoclet-frieze of 1905-1911, was his most advanced use of the composite medium and his magnificent golden paintings of the years 1907 and 1908. His last works returned to simple use of oil paint.

Hodler had profound influence on Klimt. In response to the influence of his The Chosen One (1901) on the last panel of Klimt's Beethoven-frieze (1902), Hodler states in a 1905 interview:

I like a picture to have clarity, and therefore I like parallelism. In many of my pictures I have chosen four or five figures in order to express one and the same feeling, because I know that repetition of one and the same thing deepens the effect produced. I have a particular preference for five, since an uneven number heightens the regularity of the picture and creates a natural centre-point.... My favourite artists are Durer and the Italian primitives. Of the moderns, I have a specially high opinion of Klimt. In particular, I love his frescoes: in them everything is fluent and still, and he too likes using repetition, which is the source of his splendid decorative effects.... What is so admirable in Klimt is the freedom with which he treats everything. He is a personality who goes entirely his own way, and yet typically Viennese in his grace and tenderness. Of his three great ceiling paintings I only know Philosophy. I like it less than the frescoes and the portraits, but I cannot regard them as a critic would, only as an artist, and then the harmony of colours, his manner of using paint seems to me wonderful. I like Klinger less - he always tries to say too much. Bocklin is a great artist, but somewhat too literary for my taste.

A.S. Levetus' (p. 65-6) excellent description of Klimt's style; on Gold Fish, "the colouring is particular to Klimt, the delicate airiness which seems as if no brush had ever touched it, only a whiff - a puff, and the colour is there." Klimt showed A Lady (unfinished), A Forest of Fir Trees, Still Water, Seashore, and Gold Fish at the thirteenth Secession Exhibition.

Klimt honored at the International Art Exhibition in Rome in 1911 where many important works including The Kiss, Jurisprudence and the Portrait of Emilie Floge were shown. An impressive Austrian contribution at the German Werkbund exhibition in Cologne in 1914.

Least affected by WWI, Klimt spent summers at Attersee. He had been visiting this picturesque lake resort for the Viennese bourgeoisie nearly every year for over a decade with the Floge sisters; first living in Litzlberg, then Kammer, then from 1914-6 Weissenbach at the more mountainous end of the lake. Exceptions were 1913 on Lake Garda and 1917 in Mayrhofen. Klimt loved to swim, row and motor-boat. It was probably the summer of 1905 at Attersee the greater part of his drawings for the Stoclet-frieze were completed. The rest of the year spent in Vienna where he observed a strict routine. Rising early he would walk from his flat in the Westbahnstrasse to the Cafe Tivoli for an elaborate breakfast including a large portion of whipped cream. Here his friends would seek him out since upon returning to his studio where he always had several models on hand, and he was not to be disturbed. His walk home would be through the Schonbrunn park. In earlier years his studio was in the 8th district and after 1914 in Hietzing, where he moved when his Josefstadterstrasse house was demolished that same year.

Between painting he would make rapid life sketches or more elaborate composition studies. Late in the evening he would return to the cafe to relax in the company of friends Hoffmann, Moser and Moll. In this circle he was dubbed, Konig (King). The only excursions taken were to the waters at Bad Gastein (habitual) and his annual or bi-annual visit to the home of the Primavesi family near Olmutz in Moravia. This institution was perhaps begun by Hoffmann whose patrons they originally were. Otto Primavesi took over financial backing of the WW after Warndorfer left for the US after his own considerable resources vanish in the enterprise. Nearly always Klimt, Hoffmann and the sculptor Anton Hanak would attend the annual Schweindlfest celebration, an elaborate barbeque. It took on still greater significance during the war. Klimt appears to have spent New Years in Olmutz in 1917 and 1918. The Primavesi's purchases and commissions of Klimt p. 225.

Emilie Floge was his lifelong companion.

Klimt and Schiele founded the Kunsthalle (Hall of Art) in 1917 to stop the flight of talent abroad.

The University Paintings


In 1891 the artistic commission of Vienna University submitted plans to the Ministry of Education for the decoration of the ceiling of the Great Hall, the Aula, of Heinrich von Ferstel's University building with oil paintings (not frescoes) to discuss the University's four faculties of Theology, Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence and to narrate the history of its influence. The University authorities suggested Julius Berger, Franz Matsch, the brothers Gustav and Ernst Klimt, and Eduard Veith be invited for a competition. The Ministry dismissed a competition and in 1893 invited Franz Matsch to submit an overall programme for the decoration. The artistic commission of the university rejected it in the same year on 9 November. The Ministry then asked Matsch and Klimt, whose earlier collaborative efforts had met with widespread official approval, to prepare a study for the central panel of the ceiling, with the theme 'The Victory of Light over Darkness' This along with two further sketches was approved by both the Ministry and University Commission in the summer of 1894. In September the commission for the central panel, four smaller canvases of the four facilities and sixteen lunettes was awarded to Matsch and Klimt jointly. However they split the panels between them. Klimt was to execute the three faculties besides Theology and ten of the lunettes. In May 1898 with the submission of the four faculty and central panel sketches to a joint sitting of the Commission and Ministry, specific criticisms were directed at Klimt, and both artists were forced to declare themselves 'within the limits of artistic freedom' to undertake alterations necessary to ensure stylistic unity.

Klimt painted The University paintings in his studio in Florianigasse since his normal atelier in the Josefstadterstrasse was too small.


When Klimt exhibited his full sized Philosophy at the seventh Secession Exhibition in March 1900, it was clear he had embarked on an entirely new course. Critic Richard Muther's description of the impact p. 50. Vergo adds that "Like Pallas Athene, Philosophy shows distinctly the influence of contemporary German and Belgian Symbolist painting, especially the work of Khnopff," as the figure of Philosophy is strongly reminiscent of his allegorical female portraits of this time. Earlier drafts included an image of 'Philosophy' as seated in profile holding her bowed head in reflection, which is a much more traditional than the frontal in the final version. (The figure of Philosophy is the lowest on the canvas.) One can see influences of Hans Canon's ceiling painting The Circle of Life in Vienna's Naturhistorisches Museum in the compositional concetto, and the use of the Sphinx figure. However Klimt presents us with a overtly pessimistic view of human existence. The column of figures on the left represent in Hevesi's words, "desire and torment, toil and struggle, the striving, creative, suffering face of existence." Another review p. 53. Criticism p. 55.

A number of professors petitioned (published March 30, 1900) against the placement of Philosophy as it lacks harmonious contrast to the richly gilded ceiling decoration and the work of Matsch. Furthermore it would lose much of its effect being so high up. Munther's comments p. 56. On March 27th the Secession placed a wreath in front of the painting bearing their motto. 'Der Zeit ihre Kunst, der Kunst ihre Freiheit' - to every age its art, to art its freedom. Franz Wickhoff, professor of art history, rebuffed Wilhelm Neumann, the rector of the university, for agitating the more reactionary professors in a telegram sent from Rome and later gave a lecture entitled, "What is Ugly," on 9 May 1900 to the University Philosophical Society defending Klimt's painting. He quoted Lichtwark:

If someone adopts the well-known and often heard expressions 'I demand from the artist,' 'the artist should,' 'the artist must', this proves that he has no idea how the work of art comes into being. He may approach the applied arts, which exist for his service, with such demands, he may ask such things of the broad mass of artistic production, saleable ware which cater for an existing need. But no one in the world has nay need of the work of art before it comes into being, with the sole exception of him who creates it.

Bahr's defense given in a lecture in the Bosendorfersaal for the writers' association Concordia p. 57

All of this did not seem to effect Klimt's ability to continue work on the other pieces for the ceiling. After Philosophy finished its showing at the Secession exhibition at the end of March, it traveled to Paris where it was shown in the Austrian pavilion at the Exposition Universelle and was awarded the Grand Prix. Felix Salten's comments on Klimt p. 57.



The second of the University paintings, Medicine, was exhibited at the tenth secession exhibition from 15 March to 12 May 1901. The level of inspiration continued in his second painting. They are closely related in pictorial conception. Another human chain representing the various stages of earthly development (he uses this theme again in The Three Stages of Man 1905) which look to the figure of Hygeia for salvation, also rising out of the depths bearing the miraculous healing power of Medicine. Hygeia is the miracle working daughter of Aesculapius. Quote from Ernst Stohr in Ver Sacrum p. 58. Again adverse reaction from the public which led to the Ministry defending the commission in Parliament. Criticism on p. 58. Considered immoral, pornographic and just plain stomach turning.

It is the use of the female nude in the upper left in a realistic position, as opposed to naturalist Neo-Classical and Romantic conventions, which inspired disgust with Medicine as well as much of Klimt's future work. Klimt wrote of his comparative lack of interest in, "my own person as the 'subject of the picture', I am more interested in other people, above all women." Many of his most beautiful drawings were rarely exhibited owing to their overtly erotic content. Upon listening to friends', including an attorney, suggestion to sue A.F. Seligmann for libel after describing him as a pornographer in a review of the 1907 Miethke Gallery exhibition, Klimt responded, "Herr Doktor, how long would an action of this kind last? -About two days. -I could spend those two days painting!"


The third of the Fakultatsbilder. Shown at the 18th Secessionist Exhibition of only Klimt's work. (November - December 1903) Klimt considered it unfinished at this time, and he had been working on it until the opening. See The Vienna Secession Exhibitions on the Austrian Art Page.

The Beethoven-frieze (see below) was completed between the first two University paintings and Jurisprudence, and by now Klimt doubted their intended fate on the University's ceiling. Jurisprudence differs entirely from the oil sketch submitted to the Ministry of Education in 1898. Philosophy mainly blue and green, criticized for its' 'marine' appearance, followed by Medicine with its "ceremonial" reds and purples and "lavish" addition of gold for the figure of Hygeia; Jurisprudence now uses gold and black with other colours reserved almost exclusively for the figures of Law, Justice and Mercy in the upper section of the picture. The three large female figures are 'twentieth-century lemurs'.

The violent opposition of the first two University paintings had subsided and of the critics of the 18th exhibition only Karl Kraus made a further attack. Quote p. 83.

The three 'twentieth century lemurs' are compared to the three brides in Jan Toorop's painting of the same name in 1893. Similarity of Klimt's female figures to those of Toorop's may also be seen in the standing naked woman of the 'Hostile Powers' panel on the Beethoven-frieze. Here also the "mordancy of line and pose.. seems closer to Beardsley."

Hevesi visited his studio in the Josefstadterstrasse and saw Jurisprudence before the Klimt-Kollektive. Quote p. 80-1. "Far more decorative in intent than either Philosophy or Medicine, it marked the furthest step on the path towards what Hevesi called Malmosaik (literally, 'painted mosaic')" We see the influence of Byzantine art. Alfred Roller very well may have encouraged Klimt to visit Ravenna where Roller had been to study the technique of mosaic in connection to his work for the Breitenfelder-Kirche. Klimt had visited in the spring of this year (sent his mother a postcard of the interior of San Vitale on 9 May 1903) and returned with painter Max Lenz the following winter. Lenz commented on the enormous impact the mosaics made on Klimt. This is reflected in Jurisprudence, the Stoclet-frieze (his only true mosaic), The Kiss (1908), and his portraits of Fritza von Riedler (1905) and Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907). Hevesi provides further comment of Klimt's mosaic style in an article 'Gustav Klimt und die Malmosaik.'

Klimt Rejects the Commission

All three were shown at the collective exhibition at the end of 1903 in the Secession Building. The accumulated criticism caused Klimt to fear the fate of his paintings and in 1904 he renounced the commission for the lunettes. He wrote in a letter 3 April 1905 to the Ministry of Education:

His Excellency, Minister Dr von Hartel, has given me from his actions clearly to understand that my work has now become an embarrassment to those who commissioned it. If this task, which has consumed years of work, is ever to be completed, then I must seek to derive from it once again some satisfaction, and such satisfaction is totally lacking as long as, under the present circumstances, I must continue to regard it as a State commission. I am, therefore, faced with the impossibility of bringing this task, which is already so far advanced, to completion.

With the help of August Lederer, Klimt repaid the 30,000 crowns received for the commission. Lederer acquired Philosophy which Josef Hoffmann built into one of the rooms of Lederer's flat in Bartensteingasse. Medicine and Jurisprudence were bought by Kolo Moser. All three were shown again in 1907 at the Galerie Miethke in Vienna, at Keller and Rainer's in Berlin, and then finally at the memorial exhibition in Vienna in 1943 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the artist's birth. They perished in the fire set by the S.S. in the Schloss Immendorf in 1945. Many other important works by Klimt and others belonging to the Lederer family including the two sopraporte painted for Dumba's music room, Musik II and Schubert at the Piano which had been placed there for safe keeping.


The Beethoven-frieze

was a monumental fresco which decorated three walls of the long room to the left of the main entrance of the Secession building. It consisted of six plaster panels, painted in casein colours and decorated with gold and semi precious stones. It was created for the fourteenth Secession Exhibition which ran from 15 April - 27 June in 1902. This exhibition was different in that it's sole purpose was to honor Max Klinger, an original corresponding member of the Secession, and his monumental sculpture, Beethoven. Please see notes on this exhibition in Austrian Art.

This fresco and very large impressive murals by Roller, Bohm and Andri, along with sculptures by Hoffman, were all destroyed after the exhibition as they were created and intended solely to act as backdrop for the presentation of Klinger's Beethoven. However much protest saved the Klimt's fresco, and it was left intact until after the large Klimt retrospective exhibition held at the Secession in 1903. It was then dismantled and passed to the collector Carl Reininghaus. Some time before 1915 it joined many other Klimt works in Lederer's collection. It did not face the tragic fate of most of the Lederer collection in the Nazi burning of the Immendorf Castle in 1945. In 1972 was acquired by the Austrian nation. The fresco panels are now displayed at the Oesterreichische Galerie in Vienna.

The progress of mankind from desire to fulfillment.

First Long Wall (opposite the entrance): The longing for happiness.

The above detail from the first long wall depicts the sufferings of Weak Humanity beseeching the Knight in Armour externally; and internally Pity and Ambition drive him to undertake the struggle for happiness.

Narrow Wall: The Hostile Powers.


"The 'longings and desires' of mankind, which fly above and beyond the giant Typhon and the three Gorgons, rejecting, as it were, the temptations of the Devil, the World and the Flesh"1

From the catalogue, "The giant Typhon, against whom even the Gods battle in vain; his daughters, the three Gorgons. Sickness, Mania, Death. Desire and Impurity, Excess. Nagging care. The longings and desires of mankind fly above and beyond them."

In the third plate Impurity and Desire hover above Excess.

Second long wall: Longing for happiness finds repose in Poetry.


From the catalogue, "The Arts lead us into the Kingdom of the Ideal, where alone we can find pure joy, pure happiness, pure love. Choir of Heavenly Angels."

The first panel is a figure of Poetry.

The final choral movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was set to Schiller's 'Ode to Joy', from which Klimt selected two quotations for his last panel. In fact the entire exhibition may be associated with this final movement. The rejection of the 'longings and desires of mankind' in favor of Joy reflects the rejection of the themes of the first two movements in Beethoven's Ninth which occurs at the beginning of the final movement; and the arrival into the realms of 'pure joy, pure happiness, pure love,' at the very end of the symphony.

"... the overall message of the frieze was intended as a much more far reaching allegory of the power, and, in particular, the abstract inward nature of music." When seen at his collective exhibition in the Secession building in 1903, the final panel was identified by the Biblical quotation, "My Kingdom is not of this World," not by Schiller's 'Ode to Joy.' And thus the name changed from Choir of Heavenly Angels to My Kingdom is not of this World.

This take on the panel alludes to Richard Wagner's essay on Beethoven in 1870. Here Wagner manifests his conversion to the Schopenhauerian vision of music: the supremacy of music among other arts, a pure reflection of the individual Will and the inner essence of the world. Quotation? from the essay:

Just as, under the world-civilization of the Romans, Christianity emerged, so too music now breaks forth from amidst the chaos of modern civilization. Both say to us 'our Kingdom is not of this World.' That means, we come from within, you from without; we derive from the essence of things, you merely from their appearance.

Final Comments on the Beethoven-frieze.

The figure of Impurity called, "the utmost ever achieved in the field of obscene art." Hevesi called the work, "so perfect an expression of the artist's daring, autocratic personality" that it was "difficult to restrain oneself from calling it his masterpiece... without question the high-point of modern decorative painting." With the University paintings destroyed, the Beethoven-frieze must be regarded as one of Klimt's most important surviving monumental works along with the Stoclet-frieze.

This work displays his most important influences upon his mature style. Art Nouveau less immediately than in the University Paintings, but those of Byzantine and Mycenaean ornament recognized in the decoration of the instrument carried by the figure of Poetry, and the jewelry worn by Excess. There is a "sideways glance at the German Renaissance in the portrayal of the Knight in Armour." Influence of Hodler seen in the "stylized repetitions of the Choir of Heavenly Angels." See The Chosen One, shown at the twelfth Secession exhibition the previous year.

The figure of Poetry likens the same figure in Die Musik I (1895). Klimt produced a color lithograph Musik (1901) for a Ver Sacrum issue in its fourth year. Musik II was a more radically altered version, commission as one of two sopraporte for Nikolaus von Dumba's music room. Several of the preparatory drawings for Musik II are clearly used as the model for the Impurity figure in the Beethoven-frieze.

The naked, embracing couple in My Kingdom is not of this World "recalls the mighty male torso which dominates the upward-striving chain of humanity in Philosophy." We will be reminded of this couple twice again in the embracing figures of the Stoclet-frieze, and The Kiss (1908).

Kunstschau Exhibitions (The Kiss)

In the summer of 1908 room 22 was reserved for Klimt. Among his works shown are three outstanding female portraits: Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein (1905), Fritza von Riedler (1907), and Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907). The Wittgenstein is a transitional work between his Impressionist style of Sonja Knips to the decorative manner of his work after the commission for the Stoclet-frieze.

The Kiss (1908) shown for the first time "-the culmination of his 'mosaic' manner of these years, the transformation of the chaste influence of Ravenna into a sumptuous gesture of transfigured eroticism." Theme of embrace goes back to Love (1895). The Austrian nation purchased The Kiss before the close of the exhibition. His portrait of Emilie Floge was purchased about the same time.

The Three Ages of Man (1905) is "a reaffirmation of the artist's preoccupation with the theme of decay and mortality which is also dominant in the University Paintings, and the famous Danae" (1907-8). Danae was also shown, and is "one of several treatments of classical subjects in his later period among them Leda of 1917." Altenberg's words on Three Ages of Man. Eduard Potzl calls Danae "unhealthy."

Klimt remarks around this time that the next generation of artists do not understand him and are tearing down his and his colleagues first assault on traditional art. Quote p. 200.

Internationale Kunstschau 1909

Klimt showed Judith II (Salome 1909) with its decorative intent and mordant use of line, it remains the epitome of the artist's Jugendstil manner. Hope I (1903) coming from Fritz Warndorfer's specially constructed shrine for this very personal Klimt work, presents a overtly erotic image of pregnancy.

The financial failure of both the Kunstschau exhibitions did not allow for a third. From this time to World War I Vienna found itself culturally barren. This was warned of by Bahr in 1901 in his defense of the Klimt University Paintings, quote p. 202. Klimt withdrew into isolation and refused to exhibit in Vienna; namely the completed Stoclet-frieze. Quote p. 205.

Remaining Career

Compare Adele Bloch-Bauer (plate 153 in 1907) to the second version (plate 194 in 1912). "After the second Kunstschau and the completion of the Stoclet-frieze, he had moved away from the lavishly ornamented, golden manner exemplified by the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, towards a more painterly style."1  The later version's compositional decorative effect is achieved entirely by use of color and line. The simplicity of the standing, frontal pose reminds of Watteau's Portrait of Gilles with a Whistlerian interpretation. Here we see the earliest use of Oriental motifs. He had built up an extensive collection of Oriental and primitive art which he displayed in his studio in the Feldmuhlgasse in Hietzing. He uses his Chinese and Japanese screens, wall paintings, vases and figurines as colorful backdrop to the sitter's figure. We see this in Bloch-Bauer II, Baroness Elizabeth Bachofen-Echt (1914), Serena Lederer (1899), and Friederike Maria Beer (1916). The latter's background is taken (according to the sitter) from a Korean vase in his studio which he "unrolled" onto the canvas.

Mentions the influence of van Gogh and how it takes years for an influence to assimilate and appear in Klimt's work. References that of the Ravenna motifs seen in 1903 but appear years later in The Kiss - gradual process of maturation.

Portraiture occupied an important place in Klimt's oeuvre during the war years. His landscape subjects taken from the area around Attersee (a lake). Here we see the influence of van Gogh in his views of the park of Schloss (Castle) Kammer with their heavier impasto and twisted forms. The "marvelously atmospheric" Island on the Attersee (1910) shows a Monet influence. He painted a number of views of the Schloss playing with perspective and proportion, ex. Avenue in the Park of Schloss Kammer (1912) where he abbreviates the perspective. Other views painted from a boat with binoculars perhaps. Predominantly a studio painter, these summer landscape paintings are thought to have been painted out of doors without innumerable sketches. However his notebooks from this time have been destroyed. He would even leave half finished paintings in the bushes to avoid carrying them back and forth. Sensitive to disturbance, he would only paint en plein air when completely secure from interruption. Not one painting from his stay in Mayrhofen summer of 1917 where he was unable to obtain seclusion. At Attersee he painted Forester's house in Weissenbach, Church in Unterach (1916) and Litzlbergkeller am Attersee, bought by the Primavesi family.

From 1912-1916 "Klimt's art remained to all appearances static, incapable of further development."1 From the beginning of 1917 to his death in February 1918 a important change in style emerges. The Bride (1917-8) and The Baby (1917) show "emphasis upon pattern, decoration, the feeling of line, the delicacy of the colouristic effect", as well as "a heightened awareness of the compositional element, a more lively concern with geometric structure."1 Shows influence of Schiele. (Reference also Schiele's Danae (1908) conception and pose being similar to Klimt's 1917 Leda.) The "use of a receding triangular form in The Bride and The Baby reminds of Schiele's Death of the Maiden (1915) and The Embrace. Also a parallel between the head of the baby in Klimt's The Baby and Schiele's Dead Mother (1910) An "importance given to the abstract element of the composition, which takes precedence over not only the representational, but also spatial concerns, likewise suggests the beginning of a new and radical development." Many canvases however were left unfinished. He dies from the after effects of a stroke. He suffered a thrombosis on the morning of 11 January. He had always feared death from a heart attack which killed his father. Still reeling he managed to gasp the words, "Call Emilie." He was paralyzed in his right side and was taken to a clinic in Vienna's ninth district. A lung infection, a consequence of the flu epidemic hastened his end. He died 6 February. The writings in response by Wagner and Hoffmann p. 237-8.



1)    Art in Vienna 1898 - 1918, Peter Vergo, Phaidon Press Limited, Oxford, Second Impression 1986. First Published 1975.
The Expressionists. Wolf-Dieter Dube, trans by Mary Whittall. Thames and Hudson, 1972.