Klimt's Golden Phase

This golden style has earned a permanent place in art history

By Belvedere

Gustav Klimt (1917) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

Klimt's name has always been associated with gold paintings. All these works were created in his so-called "Golden Phase" from 1901 to 1909. They are an astonishingly small group of works compared to others produced by Klimt. However, it is these golden paintings that have become Klimt's unmistakable hallmark and earned a permanent place in art history. Klimt's "Golden Style" most often manifests itself in profound and allegorical themes. Many of these pictures are given special significance by the splendor of gold and are thus transported to another level of reality.

As for why Klimt was so interested in gold, we can only speculate. Klimt could have received some early inspiration in his family home, where his father worked as a gold engraver. A key experience was certainly the trip to Venice and Ravenna in 1903, where Klimt admired the medieval gold mosaics in the cathedrals and churches.

Judith (1901) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

"Judith I", 1901

One of the first works Klimt worked on using real gold leaf is the famous painting of Judith.

The erotic heroine of her Jewish people wears a gold choker studded with gemstones…

…and a similarly valuable gold belt.

The master also used a lot of gold in the design of the background. He worked in motifs of fig trees and vines which are reminiscent of depictions in Sennacherib's Assyrian palace.

The gold character of the painting is enhanced by its frame, covered at the top with gilded metal. It was designed by Klimt and created by his brother Georg.

Beethoven Frieze: "The Sufferings of Weak Humanity" and "The Well-Armed Strongman" (Panel 3, left side wall) (1901) by Gustav KlimtSecession

The figure of the golden knight—which Klimt reproduced to an excellent standard in the Beethoven frieze—was varied a year later in his 1903 painting "The Golden Knight".

Life is a Struggle (Golden Rider) (1903/1903) by Gustav KlimtAichi Prefectural Museum of Art

"The Golden Knight", 1903

With full armor, a helmet on his head, and a lance in his hand, the golden knight seems to ride undeterred along a golden path.

His magnificent armor, parts of the horse's bridle, and the path along the bottom of the painting consist of glimmering gold leaf…

…and traces of gold flakes even sparkle between the leaves of the dense foliage in the background.

Through his abundant use of this precious material, Klimt highlights the historical character of this figure, which is in fact based on the equestrian statues in Venice and Florence of the early Renaissance.

Friends (Water serpants) (1904/1907) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

"Girlfriends (Water Serpents I)", 1904–07

A year later in 1904, Klimt created this unusual picture. It presents two female figures moving sinuously through the water, surrounded by fish and aquatic plants.

What is most unusual about this work is that it is a small-format piece on parchment. The colors and shapes are applied in an especially fine way to give an almost graphic effect.

This makes the work appear like a valuable miniature piece. Klimt builds on this impression of it being a precious treasure by filling some parts of the picture—like the long hair of the women or the gentle creeping vines—with real gold.

The gold shimmers even more intensely than usual on the smooth parchment surface, reinforcing the handcrafted character of this piece.

Le tre età (1905) by Gustav KlimtLa Galleria Nazionale

"The Three Ages of Woman", 1905

The allegorical picture "The Three Ages of Woman" is a particularly large painting which is effectively enriched by gold and other metals.

In this work, Klimt presents a young mother with her baby in her arms next to an elderly female figure, bringing the concept of the birth and decay of human life to the fore.

The figures, all portrayed as nudes, are surrounded by encircling biomorphic and organic decorative layers in intense colors. In particular, the figure of the old woman is enveloped by a golden cloud in which small, spherical, shining gold elements gather.

The figures are also shown before a shimmering metallic background, a surface composed of a wealth of small bright dots.

For the background, Klimt did not use gold but silver and bronze instead. This conveys the impression of a cool shower of rain.

Through this metallic shimmer in the background and the numerous gilded decorative elements, Klimt gives this symbolic interpretation of the different ages of woman a particularly mystical and mysterious aura.

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

"Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I", 1903/07

The painting "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" is most certainly a highlight of Klimt's Golden Period. It is currently kept in the Neue Galerie in New York. The painting was commissioned in 1903, the same year the master traveled to Ravenna. However, Klimt needed four years in total to complete the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1881–1925), the eccentric wife of industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. When the painting was first presented at an exhibition it caused quite a stir, not least because of the unusual materials used. For art writer Ludwig Hevesi, for example, the portrait looked like "a hybrid of painting and crafts, produced with the diligence of a goldsmith.".

The individual ornamental motifs Klimt presents in this piece in abundance suggest several stylistic influences.

The golden square and circular decorative parts covering the dress and backrest of the armchair seem to recall the splendor of the gold mosaics in Ravenna, which the painter was fascinated by at the time.

The idiosyncratic eye motifs and pointed triangles adorning the dress of Adele Bloch-Bauer are reminiscent of Egyptian gold jewelry. Meanwhile, the delicate spirals on the back of the chair are clearly inspired by ancient Mycenaean art.

The diffuse background made of tiny gold flakes is reminiscent of East Asian folding screens and lacquer pieces, which Klimt also greatly admired and collected himself.

Finally, by contrasting the opulent gold surfaces with the almost hyper-realistic portrait of the person depicted, Klimt seems to want to evoke the impression of Byzantine icons.

The Kiss (1908-1909) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

"The Kiss (Lovers)", 1908/09

Another highlight of Klimt's Golden Period is his best-known painting today, "The Kiss (Lovers)" from 1907/08 in the Belvedere collection in Vienna.

A pair of lovers kneel on a flower meadow before a cosmic golden background, dressed in precious golden robes.

The group on the right side is also surrounded and effectively highlighted by a golden aureole. Klimt employs great inventiveness in structuring the gold leaf on the painting surface.

As in the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer from before, gold also takes on many decorative forms here, such as those found on the robes of the two lovers. The abundance of gold gives the picture an overall mystical and transcendental effect.

The special design of the background—made of fine gold dust and flakes—seems to lift the lovers from their earthly suffering and leave them to float in the infinite cosmos.

Hope, II (1907 - 1908) by Gustav KlimtMoMA The Museum of Modern Art

"Hope II", 1907/08

In the painting "Hope II," created at exactly the same time as "The Kiss," the cosmic stardust returns yet again. This time it is the background for an allegory of hope, which Klimt shows in the form of a highly pregnant young woman.

With no suggestion of any spatial link to the empty, cosmic background, the master shows the figure in profile. Several additional female figures curled in on themselves are visible at her feet.

A long cloak hangs over her long gown decorated with flowers of various colors, which does not cover her breasts.

This is adorned by oval shapes in glittering gold which lie effectively on a bright red background. Through these egg-shaped, gold-finished shapes, Klimt emphasizes the figure's significance as a symbol of future life.

In contrast, a skull appears above the pregnant woman's belly, at the same time symbolizing the permanent threat of the extinction of life.

Judith II Salomè (1909) by Gustav KlimtCa' Pesaro - Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna

„Judith II (Salome)”, 1909

By 1909, Klimt's Golden Period had already come to an end. The last painting he created in this manner was "Judith II (Salome)," finished in 1909 and purchased shortly thereafter by the city of Venice.

Eight years after his sensational painting "Judith I," which was also one of the first works of his Golden Period, Klimt returned to the subject of Judith while also connecting her to another biblical figure: Salome.

Once again, Klimt presents Judith as a highly erotic femme fatale who still does not shy away from the cruel act for which she is known.

Numerous gold parts highlight the exotic splendor of this depiction, whether the many ornamental shapes on the dress and fabric bag…

…or the spiral shapes in the background, or especially the wide gilded frame panels which balance out the extreme height of the painting.

Death and Life (First Version) (1910/1911) by Gustav KlimtLeopold Museum

"Death and Life", 1910/11, revised 1915

Gold leaf can only be found in a select number of Klimt's paintings after 1909. One of the few works still displaying the use of gold after 1909 is the original version of the painting "Death and Life" created in 1910/11.

The work is now in the Leopold Museum in Vienna. This early version was only provided as a color print published in an art magazine.

In this version, for example, gold decorations can be found in the motifs of the rose bush within the "Life" group.

And the background, which looks brownish in the picture, may have been similar to the gold backgrounds Klimt created in paintings "The Kiss" and "Hope II," for example.

Death and Life (1910/15) by Gustav KlimtLeopold Museum

For reasons still unknown, Klimt substantially revised parts of the painting in 1915 and almost completely obscured all the original golden sections.

Credits: Story

Text: Österreichische Galerie Belvedere / Franz Smola

© Österreichische Galerie Belvedere

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