Klimt's Female Portraits

There is no doubt that Gustav Klimt was a painter of women

Gustav Klimt (c. 1910) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

He paid tribute to female beauty in his works like no other artists, and always placed feminine attractiveness at the center of his creative work. It seems significant that Klimt very rarely painted male portraits. In addition, his few male portraits only emerged during the artist's very early creative period. Klimt almost always painted portraits of women.

Serena Pulitzer Lederer (1867–1943) (1899) by Gustav KlimtThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

In his female portraits, Klimt's creative techniques vary in frequency and speed. This is not the case with the allegorical pictures or the landscapes in Klimt's oeuvre. The master artist looked for new ideas with every portrait. No composition is the same. Each portrait was accompanied by a multitude of pencil studies, which Klimt used to develop his seemingly perfect physical poses and often individual details such as hand positionings as well. As long as these studies exist, it is possible to reconstruct Klimt's struggle to create the best-possible compositions for his portraits.

Woman Standing Facing Slightly left, with Right Arm Akimbo (Study for the portrait "Serena Lederer") (1898-1899) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

These workings show how conscientiously Klimt handled each of his portraits. A portrait would always take a long time to create—sometimes even years. When creating them, Klimt always painted with the real model in front of him. Klimt's portraits are like precious treasures: they combine an ideal composition with the highest painting finesse.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Paul Wittgenstein, Margarete Wittgenstein, Helene Wittgenstein, Hermine Wittgenstein by Johann HorváthAustrian National Library

The Clients

The clients of Klimt's portraits were part of the wealthy bourgeois class of the city of Vienna. Some were among the richest in the country, such as the Wittgenstein, Bloch-Bauer, Lederer, and Primavesi families. These families often had a Jewish background and had acquired their wealth from the banking and industry sectors, for example. Some, such as Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer or August and Serena Lederer, owned several paintings by the master artist.

Klimt was very much in demand for his portraits. However, he was quite picky with accepting commissions. He therefore could have accepted significantly more commissions than he actually completed. For Klimt, being thorough and diligent in each work was undoubtedly more important than painting as many pictures as possible.

Karl Wittgenstein (1908) by Ferdinand SchmutzerAustrian National Library

The Prices of the Portraits

Clients were willing to pay many times more than what other painters could demand for portraits for the great amount of effort Klimt put into every female portrait. Karl Wittgenstein, who commissioned the portrait of his daughter Margaret with the master in 1905, paid 10,000 crowns.

Margarethe Wittgenstein (1903) by Ferdinand SchmutzerAustrian National Library

This was a huge sum, considering that average earnings, such as a school teacher's salary, only amounted to around 1,200 crowns for a whole year. And at the time, for example, 40,000 crowns could buy a stately villa in the Salzkammergut with all the furnishings. Klimt was one of the highest-earning artists of his time.

Portrait of an unknown woman (Frau Heymann?) (c. 1894) by Gustav KlimtWien Museum

Early Female Portraits

The early portraits Klimt created in the 1880s and 1890s are characterized by a high degree of realism. In fact, Klimt's style was based on portrait photography. This tendency toward high levels of realism in the young artist's presentation increased in the early 1890s, approaching an almost photo-realistic style. Examples include the portrait of a young girl in the Leopold Museum and the portrait of a lady in the Vienna Museum (identified as the portrait of Mrs. Heymann).

Lady at the Fireplace (1897/1898) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

A short time later, however, Klimt renounced this miniature photo-realistic technique and turned to a method that has the characteristics of an impressionist style of painting. Contours are often only vaguely hinted at, the faces of those presented appear out of dim surroundings as if blurred, and the figures seem to merge with the background.

Sonja Knips (1897/1898) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

An outstanding example of Klimt's new style is undoubtedly the 1897/98 portrait of Sonja Knips, located in the Belvedere collection in Vienna. In addition to the soft design of the pink silk dress which has been painted to perfection, the mysterious look the person depicted gives the viewer is also captivating.

Portrait of Hermine Gallia (1904) by Gustav KlimtThe National Gallery, London

Bringing Materials to Life

A short time later, Klimt continued to develop his portrait style by highlighting the material qualities of the ladies' clothing in addition to an atmospheric effect. With great care, he devoted himself to reproducing elaborate ladies' dresses and paid much attention to details such as ruffles and silk ribbons. 

Klimt also selectively enriched his compositions with symbolic decorative elements. In the portrait of Hermine Gallia, for example, there is a subtle geometric pattern on the carpet.

Portrait of Emilie Flöge (1902) by Gustav KlimtWien Museum

In the portrait of Klimt's close companion Emilie Flöge, the decoration of her entire, strikingly slim-fitting dress takes over, and her headdress also transforms into an exotic-looking structure. The artist thereby transforms the female figure into a slender, fish-like being.

Emilie Flöge in a dress designed by Gustav Klimt (1909) by Madame d'Ora, AtelierAustrian National Library

In this portrait of his partner who was very important to him, Klimt puts the impressionistic character of his previous portraits aside for the first time and replaces it with a striking stylization of shapes.

Portrait of Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein (1905) by Gustav KlimtOriginal Source: Neue Pinakothek

Ornamental Images

The portraits in a sfumato style from around 1900 were followed by portraits from 1905 at the latest which then, unlike the previous works, surprised with their precise and sharp contours. The visual sharpness and clarity of these pictures is reinforced above all by their backgrounds, which often had sharp-edged, geometric motifs. Squares, wavy lines, and spirals could be found in great variety; for example, as design elements for seating, furniture, and backgrounds.

Fritza Riedler (1906) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

In the portrait of Fritza Riedler, for example, the striking geometric patterns of the armchair and wall partition contrast beautifully with the extraordinarily realistic rendering of the person portrayed.

Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1903/1907) by Gustav KlimtNeue Galerie New York

A highlight in this ambivalence of abstract geometric surface elements and the strikingly realistic portrayal of people is the famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. In this painting, not only is the background covered by rich geometric decorations, but the dress as well. The exceptional use of real gold leaf, adorning both the dress and the armchair and background in this picture and in this sheer quantity, gives the picture an almost magical and iconic character.

Portrait of Friedericke Maria Beer (1916) by Gustav KlimtTel Aviv Museum of Art

Floral Decoration and Asian Motifs in Late Female Portraits

The female portraits painted by Klimt after 1910, as in earlier portraits, feature an abundance of decorative elements. However, their design is different as Klimt no longer used geometric patterns in his later years. He instead preferred to use organic elements as forms of decoration. In particular, floral motifs were often used as a pattern for the clothes and wallpaper-like backgrounds.

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

In addition, figurative motifs from Asian art strongly emerged as decorative elements. Klimt was inspired by the Chinese and Japanese textiles and murals which he valued so highly and which he also collected. Even in the portrait of Mäda Primavesi representations of different animals appearing on the carpet reminding in their simplifying design of motifs on Asian fabrics.

Noteworthy is the stance of the nine- or ten-year-old girl who straddles her legs wide and crosses her arms behind her back.

Standing Girl in Coat (Study for the portrait "Mäda Primavesi") (1912-1913) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

A series of preliminary sketches of the painting clarify how Klimt gradually decided on the final pose of the girl.

Amalie Zuckerkandl (1917/1918) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

A short while later around 1913/14, Klimt began painting the portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl. But with the outbreak of the war and the resulting obligations for the sitter's husband, the surgeon and urologist Dr. Otto Zuckerkandl, the portrait sessions were discontinued. The areas of the dress and background are therefore incomplete. 

However, Klimt had indicated plans for floral motifs in some sections.

Seated Woman (Amalie Zuckerkandel) (1917) by Gustav KlimtOriginal Source: Galerie St. Etienne

A few preparatory studies for the portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl that have survived show how Klimt ended up at the subject's final pose. The version in the painting shows a high degree of symmetry and strictness in the composition of the person portrayed.

The friends after Gustav Klimt, plate 1, Gustav Klimt - The gleanings (1931) by Gustav KlimtMAK – Museum of Applied Arts

Anonymous Female Portraits

Klimt's female portraits that were created without actually being commissioned are especially magnificent. In these portraits, the painter evidently enjoys the freedom of not being limited by his clients' expectations and was able to give full shape to his ideal image of female beauty. Unfortunately, the identity of most of the people depicted is not known. They were often models that were available to the master for nude studies.

Mother with Two Children (Family) (1909/1910) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

Questions about identity also surround the 1909 painting "Family," part of the Belvedere collection in Vienna. It is possible that the young woman Klimt shows together with her two children came from the artist's immediate circle of friends. Klimt was known to also have children with some of his models.

Credits: Story

Text: Österreichische Galerie Belvedere / Franz Smola

© Österreichische Galerie Belvedere


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