Gustav Klimt is known as one of the best decorative painters of the twentieth century. He is also Vienna’s greatest Art Nouveau proponent. His work is characterized by a heavy use of symbolism, ornamental gold leaf, and an eroticism almost exclusively centered on women. Get to know a bit more about the man behind the masterpieces with these facts:
1. Klimt rose to success from a life of poverty.
- Klimt was the second child in a family of seven, born to an impoverished gold engraver who emigrated from Bohemia and a talented musician who never became a professional.
- He was able to attend the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts thanks to a full scholarship–and only at the age of fourteen.
2. Klimt was simple, humble, and introverted.
- He never hung out with other artists and he rarely traveled away from Vienna, so focused was he on bringing in international art to give the city more exposure.
- He never painted any self-portraits. If he had, they would probably consisted of him wearing his trademark kaftan and sandals. He also didn’t wear underwear.
3. Klimt started two prominent artist groups.
- The first was the “Company of Artists” in 1883 with his brother Ernst and school friend Franz Matsch. With their historical and academic style of painting, they gained many commissions to paint murals for theaters, churches, and other architectural works. The group was eventually awarded the Golden Order of Merit by the Emperor of Austria in 1888. The group disbanded soon after the death of Ernst, when Gustav began to use decorative symbolism in his work.
- The second was the Vienna Sezession, which Klimt started after leaving the Vienna Artists Association, in pursuit of greater artistic freedom and more control over exhibitions.
4. Klimt’s group, the Vienna Sezession, was a smashing success despite deviating from the accepted painting style of the day.
- Klimt founded it with the aim of nurturing young artists who don’t use the academic style, exposing Vienna to more international art, and promoting the works of Viennese modern artists.
- For their fourteenth exhibit, the Sezession put out paintings celebrating the life and work of master composer Ludwig von Beethoven.
5. Klimt loved women, though he never married.
- It is rumored that Klimt had an affair with every woman whose portrait he painted. From these affairs were born fourteen children, though he only recognized four.
- His most intimate friendship was with his sister-in-law Emilie Floge. Scholars cannot agree whether or not their friendship had romantic undertones, but if it did, it never became physical. His last words before he died were reportedly, “Send for Emilie.”
6. Klimt’s most famous painting is the portrait titled Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907).
- Adele Bloch-Bauer I is part of the series of paintings that comprise Klimt’s “Golden Phase” from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Other works from this period include Pallas Athene (1898), Judith I (1901), and The Kiss (1907-1908). All the paintings from this period prominently feature gold leaf.
- Adele Bloch-Bauer I fetched the highest price paid for a painting at an auction in 2006 at $135 million. The painting was sold by Adele Bloch-Bauer’s niece Maria Altmann to Ronald Lauder, heir to the Estee Lauder line of cosmetics. A movie starring Helen Mirren was made about the auction and Altmann’s long court battle over it with the government of Austria.
Gustav Klimt may have been controversial during his day and largely forgotten during most of the twentieth century, but his works have since been elevated to the canon of art. As such, they continue to inspire new generations of artists.