The Man of Contradictions

Get to Know Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt in the garden of his studio (c. 1911) by Moriz NährWien Museum

Gustav Klimt is an ambiguous personality. Even while he was alive, he was revered as the most famous Viennese painter. Yet his personality was accorded a mythical status even then. The more famous he became, the shyer he became. As he grew older, the artist increasingly retreated to the solitude of his studio. His life was full of contradictions, and his personality was marked with great ambivalence.

Portrait of Marie Henneberg (1901/1902) by Gustav KlimtOriginal Source: Kulturstiftung Sachsen‑Anhalt – Kunstmuseum Moritzburg Halle (Saale)

Klimt came from a middle-class background and was familiar with the lower classes of society associated with the suburban Vienna. At the same time, he rose to become one of the most successful painters of his time who memorialized the classes of liberal high society, industry, and finance through his female portraits. 

This ambivalence towards social background remained characteristic of Klimt. His studio was frequented, on the one hand, by the wives of rich industrialists, for whom he painted portraits, and on the other hand, by the many nude models who mostly came from poorer backgrounds and posed for the artist for a fee.

Gustav Klimt (1887)Belvedere

His ambivalence, perhaps even turmoil, is undoubtedly an important facet of Klimt's personality, which has always been puzzling. Just as his works of art, his personality will forever be mysterious.

14th exhibition at the Vienna Secession (1902) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

In terms of his personality, Klimt was rather a shy person who avoided large social gatherings. He is always described as rather taciturn by his contemporaries. Yet he often had to endure standing in the public spotlight.

Klimt spearheaded the 1900 artistic reform movement in Vienna. He was one of the driving forces within the Secession movement, which broke off from the rigid and forced representation of the Künstlerhaus in 1897, and formed his own artists' group, which was later extremely active. Klimt was the President of the Secession for the first two years following its formation, contributed to formulating the movement's agenda, and was its public face as President.

Judith (1901) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

Playing this role meant that Klimt was constantly in the crossfire from critics who were against the policies of the Secession, which was open towards international Modern Art. All the while, he had to defend his own artwork, which in turn was being increasingly criticized for its liberality.

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

For Klimt, the role of spokesman and defendant of the Secession's mission, as well as that of his own art, was an extremely uncomfortable task. This type of confrontation completely contradicted his personal, introverted nature. Instead, he much preferred to retreat to his studio and be detached from it all. Keeping a regular daily routine that allowed him enough time for his work seemed more important to him than the many social obligations and public appearances, which he saw as a waste of time, and which prevented him from maintaining a regular rhythm to his work.

Wien 14., Linzerstraße 247: Birthplace of Gustav Klimt (around 1900) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

Another reason why Klimt held back from appearing in worldly Viennese society was his poor, suburban heritage, on which he could never quite turn his back. His father, who worked as a self-employed gold engraver, had lost various investments during the stock crisis of 1873 and had to see to it that he could provide for his large family (Gustav Klimt had six siblings).

Costume Party with Gustav Klimt (1916) by AnonymousMAK – Museum of Applied Arts

Klimt's use of the Viennese dialect seemed quite noticeable to authors of the time, especially those who were not confident in it themselves. There are also occasional reports of Klimt's openly crude, colloquial manners, and his tendency towards familiar behavior, often stretching to a characterization of Klimt as a country bumpkin. Klimt's use of dialect and his tendency toward simple manners are an indication that Klimt was never quite able let go of his origins in the Viennese suburbs.

Portrait of Gustav Klimt in profile facing right (c. 1916) by Moriz NährWien Museum

Alfred Lichtwark, Director of the Hamburg Art Gallery, i.e. a non-Viennese man, very shyly and impartially gave the following illuminating description of Klimt's personality:

"He is thickset, rather chubby, yet athletic, could wrestle with Hodler, has amusing, country bumpkin-style manners, the brown skin of a sailor, strong cheekbones, and lively little eyes. He wears his hair a little too high over his temples, perhaps to make his face longer. That is the only thing you can construe from an individual artist from a distance. When he speaks, he speaks loudly, and with a strong dialect. He likes to tease, and does so with vigor." (Alfred Lichtwark, Travel Letters, 5/22/1905, Berlin 1924).

In actual fact, it is possible to make out Klimt's bronze tan in many of his portrait photographs. Even his peculiar haircut, with the hair kept very short on his temples, can be distinguished in Klimt's many photographs.

Even when Klimt was rapidly making a career for himself in Viennese high society, he would still always reminisce about his family roots. His connection to his family remained steady, even when he had advanced to being a famous personality within the city. The simple rented apartment at 36 Westbahnstrasse in Vienna's seventh district, in which Klimt lived with his mother and two unmarried sisters, Klara and Hermine, served as his home until he died.

Gustav Klimt (1917) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

Since Klimt well knew the fate of a simple, if not poor, heritage, he was very conscious of the debt he owed to the finer levels of society. He made efforts to conform to the class and status consciousness of the city's prominent inhabitants. In nearly all of the photographs that Klimt had taken for formal portraits or at social occasions, the artist is wearing good-quality clothes, the correct outfit for the occasion, and the obligatory white shirt with stand-up collar.

Painter’s smock, Presumably based on a design by Gustav Klimt (c. 1905) by Gustav KlimtWien Museum

Such an official appearance is in stark contrast to his private and work life, which was almost exclusively played out in his studio. Up until 1911, Klimt used a first-floor building, which was located in the back yard of a rented apartment building on Josefstädter Strasse in the city center. From 1911 onwards, his studio was a small, first-floor building situated in the middle of a large garden on Feldmühlgasse in the Viennese suburb of Hietzing. Inside the studio, where he met only with his portrait clients and nude models, the artist wore a comfortable, long smock. This garment served as functional work attire, but could also be interpreted as an expression of Klimt's own self-image, as a prophet on the outskirts of society.

Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge (around 1909) by H. BöhlerAustrian National Library

At every official occasion, dinner, evening concert, or theater visit, it was important to Klimt to have the one person by his side who played the most important role in his life besides his mother, namely, Emilie Flöge.

Emilie Flöge in a Reform Dress (1909) by Madame d'Ora, AtelierAustrian National Library

The painter had a close, life-long friendship with Emilie Flöge. Klimt met Emilie, who was 12 years his junior, at the time of his brother Ernst's marriage to her sister Helene in October 1891, or possibly even before. Emilie came from a wealthy, middle-class background. In 1904, she founded the "Flöge Sisters" fashion store along with her sisters, which over many years became one of the leading fashion houses in Vienna, employing up to 80 staff in its heyday. The Flöge sisters' fashion store was often frequented by high society women, who tended to also be Klimt's patrons for his female portraits. Emilie Flöge was a very successful proponent of the so-called "reform" fashion and acted as a demonstration model for her own creations, as documented by countless photographs.

Emilie Flöge, Gustav Klimt and Eleonore Zimpel in Litzlberg at the Attersee (1905)Belvedere

On the other hand, Klimt's relationship with Emilie Flöge was unusual. They were not married, had no children together, and did not live in the same apartment. Emilie lived with her sisters and her mother, as did Gustav with his. Their relationship also had strong familial aspects. Klimt often spent the evening playing cards with the Flöge family. From 1897, Klimt and the Flöge family even went away together regularly on vacation, mostly to Lake Attersee in the Salzkammergut region of Austria.

Standing Female Nude (Study for "The Three Gorgons" of the "Beethoven Frieze") (1901) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

In addition to his partnership with Emilie Flöge, Klimt also established other relationships, which were of both an amorous and familial nature. However, they took place on a completely different social level. It was no secret to Emilie Flöge or to Klimt's friends that the artist had a string of love affairs with his models. His contact with some of the models solidified into close relationships, which also bore children. However, unlike with Emilie Flöge, Klimt was never seen out in public with the mothers of his illegitimate children. These relationships took place more or less in secret. They would meet at Klimt's studio or in the apartments that Klimt financed for his companions.

Gustav Klimt on Lake Attersee (1904) by Moriz NährKlimt Foundation

In later biographies of Klimt, these affairs were deemed a scandal, and it was reported that, at his funeral, claims were made on his estate for fourteen children. It is now documented and undisputed, however, that Klimt had six children altogether, from three relationships.

It is certainly no coincidence that Klimt's lovers and the mothers of his children all hailed from the large pool of nude models with whom the artist surrounded himself on a daily basis. Spending time with models was Klimt's elixir. It was a tradition for him to have several models in his studio at the same time. They were some of the very few people who had access to his studio.

Sitting Woman with Chin Propped (Study for the portrait "Friederike Maria Beer") (1915-1916) by Gustav KlimtAlbertina Museum

Klimt kept exact records of which models he ordered to his studio on which occasions, and he paid them a comparably high fee. The models did not spend time in the same room, however, that Klimt used to paint the portraits of noble Viennese ladies. Friederike Maria Beer, on whose portrait Klimt worked for many months, recalled of the sittings for her portrait, that they always took a long time, and that Klimt would often take a break in between.

Dancing Woman with Cape (1917/18) by Gustav KlimtLeopold Museum

During these breaks, he would go into the adjoining room, to relax in conversation with the models, while drawing them at the same time. These swift pencil drawings clearly offered the artist respite from his hard work at the easel.

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

Finally, Klimt was also provided with entertainment by the many cats that inhabited his studio. Those who knew him at the time report that there were at least six cats living in the studio at any one time. The many sketches and studies left lying around on the floor of the studio were not kept out of the cats' reach. They often tore up sheets of paper, which didn't bother the artist too much. One of the nicest photographs of Klimt that we know of is the one showing him in front of his studio holding a cat.

Credits: Story

Text: Österreichische Galerie Belvedere / Franz Smola

© Österreichische Galerie Belvedere

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