Klimt's Portrait of Mäda Primavesi

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Portrait of Eugenia Primavesi (1913/14) by Gustav KlimtOriginal Source: Toyota Municipal Museum of Art

Mäda Gertrude Primavesi (1903–2000) was one of the four children of the businessman Otto Primavesi and his wife Eugenia Primavesi, née Butschek. Otto Primavesi came from one of the wealthiest and most influential families in Moravia. He owned several companies in the sugar and textile industries and also had his own bank.

Mäda Primavesi (1903–2000) (1912/1913) by Gustav KlimtThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

When Klimt began work on the portrait, Mäda Primavesi was nine years old. Klimt had not painted children very often, although there is a portrait of his own niece Helene Flöge, painted early on in Klimt's career and showing her as a young girl.

No doubt responding in the composition of the portrait to the unaccustomed youth of Mäda Primavesi, here Klimt varied the standing position that he often used in his female portraits in a highly unconventional way.

The girl stands facing the observer squarely, her legs wide apart and her arms folded behind her back. The artist no doubt chose a pose that was typical of the girl and that she would be happy to adopt. However, we know from the extant sketches that Klimt tried out a number of different poses before settling on this one. 

The pose also makes the girl's strong character instantly apparent, and this is emphasized by her relatively serious, challenging gaze.

By painting her in this stance, Klimt undoubtedly imbues the girl with a degree of self-confidence that goes far beyond the conventions of the day for portraits of children and makes the picture look very modern to our eyes.

In his choice of colors for the portrait and other motifs in the picture, the artist also seems to have engaged with the girl's lifestyle. He shows her in front of a lilac-painted wall decorated with flowers …

… a choice of color scheme that would no doubt still appeal to modern girls of that age.

The green carpet on which Mäda Primavesi is standing, with its red floral motifs, is in keeping with the bright and dainty background and even adds a playful touch with the stylized figures that also appear on it.

On the main part of the carpet we can see creatures: a dog and fluttering birds that appear to come from the world of East Asian imagery that Klimt so admired and incorporated in many of his other paintings.

Mäda Primavesi herself is wearing a white dress made of lawn. Her stockings and shoes and even the eye-catching bow in her hair are all in white.

The dress was designed by Emilie Flöge at Klimt's suggestions. Presumably to make the dress more colorful, Klimt added a band of brightly colored roses to it at chest height.

Even while Klimt was still working on the portrait of Mäda Primavesi, he was commissioned to paint the girl's mother as well. The Primavesis really loved Klimt's paintings and over the years the family acquired more of the artist's works. 

Josef HoffmannAustrian National Library

The Primavesis were also close to Klimt's artist friend, the architect and designer Josef Hoffmann. Among other things, Hoffmann designed the family's country house in Winkelsdorf near Schönberg in Moravia, (nowadays Kouty nad Desnou near Sumperk in the Czech Republic), and in 1914 Otto Primavesi took over as business manager of the design company the "Wiener Werkstätte" (Vienna Workshop) which had been co-founded by Hoffmann in 1903. 

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