Gustav Klimt is considered one the greatest painters ever known and for many is a household name. Born in Austria in a town called Baumgarten near Vienna. His father, Ernst was a gold engraver. Klimt’s two brothers also had artistic talent, one becoming a gold engraver like their father.
Interestingly gold became an integral part to Klimt’s artistic career, using gold leaf in his work and having even having a 'golden period'. During which his most famous work was conceived 'The Kiss'.
Despite enjoying patronage throughout his career and financial support from collectors his background was different. Born into poverty he received a full scholarship to the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts in 1876.
Although an accomplished painter throughout his life he never painted a single self-portrait. This was very uncommon amongst other artists. His humble background allowed him to see beyond the vanity that he felt was required for self-portraiture.
In Vienna, he started two artist groups, one, the Company of Artists. Most famously he was a founding member of the Viennese Secession. Founded in defiance of tradition and to step away from previously taught and accepted art practices in Vienna.
This group helped to provide exhibitions for young, unconventional artists, created a magazine to highlight members’ work, and brought international work to Vienna. They had their own building now known as 'Secession' (Pictured below) which functioned as their exhibition space and still continues today.
The Secession was also an opportunity for Klimt to branch out and pursue more artistic freedom within his own compositions as well. Although he eventually parted from the Secession. He was a clear driving force behind art in Vienna and rarely ever left.
Klimt never married. But it is rumoured that he had love affairs with every woman he ever painted. Although impossible to prove he did father fourteen children.
Later in his career he was commissioned to paint three largescale mural paintings for the university of Vienna. Representing three of the four branches Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence.
When presented they caused quite the scandal. Public and press rejected the works alongside many professors at the university. Many claimed he had misunderstood the themes and mocked them. When 'Medicine' was presented even politicians intervened and criticised the works heavily.
Klimt was famous for creating works that were far removed from idealized images. It is considered his refusal to create idealized, affirmative interpretations for the university, as expected by the commissioners caused them to be so firmly rejected. Although the works were highly erotic, and sexuality was a clear theme. No one in Vienna had ever dared to approach topics in such a way before. The works had recast him as an artist that was anti-authoritarian and anti-popularist on his views on art. He was ordered to pay back all the money he received for the commissions and with the help of his patrons manages to do so.
Klimt painted 'The Kiss' in German 'Liebespaar' (the lovers) soon after his scandal with the university.
The Kiss was exhibited in 1908 in Vienna. It was very well received, and was purchased, despite unfinished, by the Austrian government. It is regarded as his most famous painting.
When World War II broke out and the Nazis began their occupation many artists and artworks of the time were labelled degenerate. Although Klimt’s never featured in the degenerate exhibition.
In 1938, two of the faculty paintings from the Lederer family, who had been great supporters of Klimt throughout his career were stolen. In 1944, together with the faculty painting from the Österreichische Galerie, brought them to Schloss Immendorf. Regrettably in 1945, it was engulfed in flames. All three faculty paintings, as well as numerous other works by Klimt as part of the Lederer collection, were destroyed.
Klimt died in the influenza epidemic of 1918, leaving behind a legacy most artists could only dream of. Some of his paintings have generated record breaking numbers when sold at auction. He will undoubtedly continue to be a name we always remember.