The Early Works of Gustav Klimt

Discover how the famous painter became the artist we know today

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

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Gustav Klimt was born of simple circumstances. The second of seven children, he was born on July 14, 1862 to Ernst Klimt (1834–92) and wife Anna, née Finster (1836–1915), in the former suburb of Baumgarten in Vienna. Klimt's father, who came to Vienna with his parents at the age of eight from Dragschitz near Litomerice in the former North Bohemia, worked as a self-employed gold engraver. However, he lost his savings in the stock market crisis of 1873 and had to find a way to see his large family through. Gustav attended Volkschule and Bürgerschule—Austrian elementary and secondary education—for the next eight years.

Original Plan of the Imperial Royal Austrian Museum of Art and Industry (today MAK): Façade Facing the Ringstrasse (1867) by Heinrich von FerstelMAK – Museum of Applied Arts

Education at the Vienna College of Applied Arts

Despite their difficult financial situation, Ernst and his wife provided their son Gustav, as well as two other sons Ernst and Georg, with an education from the renowned Vienna College of Applied Arts which had opened just a few years before. A three-year apprenticeship as a college art teacher was planned initially, but Gustav and Ernst finished their studies with such flying colors that they received another two years of training in the subject of painting with the help of a state scholarship. Their brother Georg, on the other hand, specialized in craft metalwork. Gustav and Ernst Klimt first studied painting with Ferdinand Laufberger. After his sudden passing, they were then taught by Julius Victor Berger.

Male Nude (1883) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

An important part of painting education at the School of Applied Arts was nude studies. As a result, some of Klimt's earliest known works are studies of male nude models.

Portrait of Gustav Klimt in profile, standing facing right, in a pale suit, a straw hat in his hand (c. 1890) by UnknownWien Museum

Foundation of the Artist-Company and First Assignments

Klimt's professors at the School of Applied Arts, Laufberger and Berger, were among those painters who participated in numerous decorative painting assignments for the recently constructed public and private buildings along Vienna's Ringstrasse. They instructed the Klimt brothers in the technical skills of the art of painting, and also gave the young, talented students their first assignments. The two business-savvy brothers Gustav and Ernst Klimt founded a work and studio community—an "artist-company"—together with fellow student Franz Matsch in 1879 while they were still completing their studies. This company specialized in creating wall and ceiling paintings. In 1883 they moved to a collective studio in Sandwirthgasse 8 in the sixth Vienna district where they had space to create larger works as well.

Design for a Curtain of the Municipal Theater Karlsbad (1884/1885) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

Ceiling Paintings and Curtains for the Theaters in Carlsbad

The artist-company received its first assignments from architectural firm Fellner & Helmer which erected theater buildings throughout the monarchy and needed curtains and ceiling paintings to furnish them. The young painters produced the ceiling paintings for the newly built theater in the Dalmatian coastal town of Fiume (now Rijeka, Croatia) and the ceiling paintings and curtains for the theaters in Carlsbad, Bohemia (now Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic) and Reichenberg (now Liberec, Czech Republic).

Fable (1883) by Gustav KlimtWien Museum

Illustrations for the "Allegories and Emblems"

From 1883 to 1884 Gustav Klimt created other works intended as illustrations for the "Allegories and Emblems" design collection. Viennese publisher Gerlach & Schenk released richly illustrated books from 1882 to 1885 and invited numerous artists to provide allegorical depictions for them. Klimt created the two paintings "Allegory of Fable" and "Allegory of Idyll" as well as several detailed drawings. In terms of style and motivation, Klimt was still married to the then-popular neoclassicism in these works. He executed them in a refined, meticulously detailed, realistic style.

The ceiling painting Spring in the salon of the empress, Hermesvilla (1885) by Gustav Klimt jointly with Ernst Klimt and Franz MatschWien Museum

Ceiling Paintings for the Hermesvilla in Vienna

In 1885 the young painters received an assignment to paint ceiling art for several rooms in the Hermesvilla in Vienna-Lainz, built for Empress Elisabeth in 1881. The bedroom ceiling had already been started by master artist Hans Makart, but was never completed due to his death in 1884. At the invitation of their professor at the School of Applied Arts, Julius Victor Berger, the three young artists completed the ceiling painting in this room. The roughs for the painting were largely provided by Berger. In the Salon of the Empress, however, the artist-company was able to realize its own designs which all three artists worked on together.

The ceiling panels of Burgtheater's state staircase Volksgartenseite (1886/1887)Burgtheater

Ceiling Paintings for the Vienna Burgtheater

In 1886 the artist-company received a prominent assignment to realize large ceiling paintings in both stairwells of the newly built Vienna Burgtheater, designed by Gottfried Semper and Carl von Hasenauer. Gustav Klimt and Franz Matsch each produced four paintings, while Ernst Klimt painted two. The painters focused on the historical development of the theater in these ceiling paintings, and strived to produce them with an astounding level of detail and realism. In order to do so, photographs were taken of the artists and other family members dressed in historical costumes and imitating the scenes in real life. This commitment to accurately portraying historical themes was popular throughout Europe during this decade. One such example includes the very popular paintings by Dutch-British painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema. For their ceiling paintings in the Burgtheater the young painters received the Gold Merit Cross—and the highest regard from Emperor Franz Josef himself.

Wall Murals in the Kunsthistorisches Museum

In 1890 the artist-company received the assignment to paint inter-column and spandrel pieces in the stairwell of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. With allegorical depictions of the historical development of the arts, they once again continued an assignment started by Makart. Makart had already completed allegorical murals on some of the walls of the stairwell. However, the assignment for the most spectacular area in the stairwell—the huge ceiling painting—was given to Hungarian painter Mihály Munkácsy, who lived in Paris. For the four remaining blank wall surfaces between the arcaded walls of the stairwell, Gustav Klimt, Ernst Klimt, and Franz Matsch created four inter-column and spandrel paintings, finishing them in 1891.

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

Early Portraits

In addition to the wall and ceiling paintings created by Klimt with his brother Ernst and Franz Matsch, Gustav Klimt was increasingly commissioned to paint portraits.

Seated Young Girl (1894) by Gustav KlimtLeopold Museum

In these portraits created in the late 1880s and early 1890s, the young painter developed an astounding level of realism. Each detail was produced to an almost microscopic degree of perfection. These works are an impressive demonstration of the great artistry and technical painting expertise young Gustav Klimt already possessed at the time.

Blind Man (1896) by Gustav KlimtLeopold Museum

Around the mid-1890s he also produced several male portraits which, in contrast to his previous photo-realistic portraits, show exceptionally loose brush strokes and a soft, diffuse application of color. Klimt started on a new stylistic painting technique through these paintings which would become typical of the portraits of the late 1890s.

Ernst Klimt (1890) by Carl SchusterBelvedere

End of the Artist-Company

Ernst Klimt married Helene Flöge in October 1891. That same year Gustav Klimt became a member of the Vienna visual artists co-operative, the Künstlerhaus, which at the time was the most important artists association in Vienna. In 1892 the artist-company moved to a studio in Josefstädter Straße 21 in Vienna's eighth district. The success of the artist company took a severe hit, however, when Gustav's brother Ernst died unexpectedly in 1892. Klimt's father also died in the same year. The artist company was dissolved, and Klimt fell into a deep creative crisis. Matsch moved out of the shared studio on Josefstädter Straße and Klimt continued to work there alone. In 1894 Gustav Klimt, his mother, brother Georg, and his two unmarried sisters Klara and Hermine moved to an apartment in Westbahnstraße 36 in the seventh district of Vienna. Klimt spent the rest of his days in this family unit, which only changed when Georg married and when their mother died in 1915.

Credits: Story

Text: Österreichische Galerie Belvedere / Franz Smola

© Österreichische Galerie Belvedere

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