The Life and Work of Gustav Klimt, Austrian Symbolist Painter

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss (detail), ca. 1908-09, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Belvedere Museum.

Gustav Klimt (July 14, 1862 – February 6, 1918) is best-known as a founder of the Vienna Secession and a leading light of the worldwide Art Nouveau movement. The primary subject of his work is the female body, and his subject matter is strikingly erotic for the time. His pieces have drawn some of the highest prices ever paid in auctions for works of art.

Early Years

Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Near Unterach am Attersee. Upper Austria. Photograph. About 1910.
Klimt in 1910. Imagno / Getty Images

The second of seven children, Gustav Klimt was born in Baumgarten, a town near Vienna in what was then Austria-Hungary. His mother Anna Klimt dreamed of being a musical performer, and his father Ernst Klimt the Elder was an engraver of gold. Klimt and his brothers, Ernst and George, showed artistic talent at an early age.

At age 14, Gustav Klimt enrolled in the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule (now known as the University of Applied Arts Vienna), where he studied painting in the academic tradition. His specialty was architectural painting.

After graduating, Klimt, his brothers, and his friend Franz Matsch founded the Company of Artists and began receiving commissions for public projects and murals. In 1888, Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef I honored Gustav Klimt with the Golden Order of Merit for his work on murals in the Vienna Burgtheater. 

Four years later, in 1892, tragedy struck: Klimt's father and brother Ernst died in the same year, leaving Gustav financially responsible for their families. The personal tragedy impacted Klimt's work. He soon developed a new style that was more symbolic and erotic in tone.

Vienna Secession

Beethoven Frieze.

In 1897, Gustav Klimt became a founding member and the president of the Vienna Secession, a group of artists with a shared interest in painting outside the academic tradition. The Vienna Secession aimed to provide exhibition opportunities for unconventional emerging artists and bring the work of foreign artists to Vienna. The Vienna Secession did not encourage any particular style of art, but rather promoted artistic freedom as a philosophical idea. The supported their efforts by providing land for the construction of an exhibition hall. 

In 1899, Gustav Klimt completed Nuda Veritas, a painting he expected would rattle the academic art establishment. Above the nude, red-headed woman in the painting, Klimt included the following quote by Friedrich Schiller: "If you cannot please everyone with your deeds and your art, please only a few. To please many is bad."

Around 1900, Klimt completed a series of three paintings for the Great Hall of the University of Vienna. The symbolic and erotic themes incorporated in the work were criticized as pornographic. The paintings, which were the last public commission accepted by Klimt, were never displayed on the ceiling. Nazi military forces destroyed all three paintings during World War II.

In 1901, Klimt painted Beethoven Frieze. The painting was inten for the 14th Vienna Secession exhibition, was intended only for the exhibition itself. Klimt painted directly on the walls. However, the painting was preserved and finally displayed publicly again in 1986. The face of Ludwig van Beethoven in the painting resembles that of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler.

Golden Phase

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (detail), ca. 1903-1907, oil, silver, and gold on canvas. Courtesy of Neue Galerie New York.

Gustav Klimt's Golden Phase was his most successful critically and financially. The name comes from the use of gold leaf in many paintings of the time. Two of the best-known are the Adele Bloch-Bauer I from 1907 and The Kiss completed in 1908. 

Klimt's work with gold leaf shows influences from Byzantine art and the mosaics of Venice and Ravenna, Italy, travel destinations for the artist during the time. In 1904, Gustav Klimt collaborated with other artists on the decoration of Palais Stoclet, the home of a wealthy Belgian patron. His pieces Fulfillment and Expectation are considered to be some of his best decorative work.

The Kiss is considered to be one of the defining pieces from the Art Nouveau movement. It boldly incorporates the organic lines and boldly natural content that flow through the painting and decorative arts of the era. Purchased by the Austrian government while still unfinished, The Kiss helped restore Gustav Klimt's reputation after the controversy surrounding his work on the Great Hall of the University of Vienna.

Personal Life

Gustav Klimt with Emilie Floege
Imagno / Getty Images

Gustav Klimt's lifestyle was considered unconventional for the time. While working and relaxing at home, he wore sandals and a long robe without undergarments. He rarely socialized with other artists and preferred to focus on his art and family.

In the 1890s Klimt began a lifelong companion relationship with Austrian fashion designer Emilie Louise Flöge. Whether or not they were engaged sexually is still a subject of debate. He is known to have engaged in sexual affairs with many women and fathered at least 14 children in his lifetime.

Gustav Klimt left behind little written material about his art or inspirations. He did not keep a diary, and most of his writing consisted of postcards sent to Emilie Floge. One of his rare personal commentaries included the statement, "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."

Later Life and Legacy

World's Most Expensive Painting To Go To New York Museum
Chris Hondros / Getty Images

Klimt's 1911 painting Tod und Leben (Death and Life) received the top prize at the Rome International Exhibition of Art. It was one of Gustav Klimt's last significant pieces. In 1915, his mother Anna died. In January 1918, Klimt suffered a stroke. He contracted pneumonia while hospitalized and died February 6, 1918. He left behind many unfinished paintings. 

Gustav Klimt was the leader of the Vienna Secession and one of the most prominent artists in the short-lived worldwide Art Nouveau movement. However, his style is considered to be highly personal and unique to the artist. He did have a significant influence on fellow Austrian artists Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka.

Klimt's work has brought some of the highest auction prices on record. In 2006, Adele Bloch-Bauer I sold for $135 million, the highest price ever paid at the time. Adele Bloch-Bauer II exceeded that amount selling for $150 million in 2016.

Gustav Klimt Fast Facts

Full Name: Gustav Klimt

Occupation: Artist

Born: July 14, 1862, in Baumgarten, Austria-Hungary

Died: February 6, 1918, in Vienna, Austria-Hungary

Education: Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule

Selected Works: Nuda Veritas (1899), Adele Bloch-Bauer 1 (1907), The Kiss (1908), Tod und Leben (Death and Life) (1911)

Key Accomplishment: Leader of the Vienna Secession artistic movement.

Famous Quote: "I can paint and draw. I believe this myself, and a few other people say that they believe this, too. But I'm not certain of whether it's true."

Sources and Further Reading

  • Fliedl, Gottfried. Gustav Klimt 1862-1918 The Word in Female Form. Benedikt Taschen, 1994.
  • Whitford, Frank. Klimt. Thames and Hudson, 1990.