Gustav Klimt: A Biography

On this tour, we visit key locations of Klimt’s life and work and locations that represent turning points in the Vienna art scene at the turn of the 20th century.

Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule (University of Applied Arts)

Gustav Klimt, the second of seven children, was born on July 14, 1862 outside Vienna. At the age of 14, Gustav received a scholarship for the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule. His family was not wealthy, and Klimt applied himself to his studies. A talented student, he worked with his professors and classmates on important commissions while still studying.

"The Altar of Dionysos" (Gustav Klimt): Detail by Gustav KlimtBurgtheater

Architectural Painting

Klimt studied architectural painting, which focused on perspective, a drawing technique that creates the illusion of three dimensions. Some of Klimt’s early work reflects this, including the pillars and entablature visible in this detail from a mural in the Burgtheater Vienna.

Idyll (1884) by Gustav KlimtWien Museum

Academic Style

Perfectly smooth skin, marble architecture, and ancient or historical subject matter (figures wearing togas) are characteristics of the Academic style of art. Klimt excelled at this realistic, elevated style and showcased it in much of his early work. 

Burgtheater: Ceiling panel of the State Staircase Volksgartenseite (1886/1887) by Gustav and Ernst Klimt, Franz MatschBurgtheater

The Burgtheater and other commissions

On completing school, Gustav, his brother Ernst, and their friend and fellow student, Franz Matsch, founded the so-called "Artist Compagnie", working mostly on commissions of murals in large public buildings. They embraced the Academic, historical style popular with the European elite of the day, and were richly rewarded. Several of their works won Gustav prestigious prizes. The Emperor of Austria himself commissioned the ceiling paintings of the Burgtheater. 

The Cart of Thespis

The Burgtheater paintings trace the history of theatre itself. This scene shows a legendary ancient Greek actor who toured the countryside on a cart that doubled as a stage. Klimt devoted much of the painting’s focus to the women in the audience.

Romeo & Juliet

Another Klimt ceiling work shows a historical performance of Romeo and Juliet. Klimt’s talent can be seen in the dramatic tension between the crowded, busy, vertically oriented audience on the right, and Juliet’s isolated, still, and horizontal dead body on the left.

"The Altar of Dionysos" (Gustav Klimt): Detail (1886/1887) by Gustav KlimtBurgtheater

The Altar of Dionysus

This ode to the Greek god of wine sits over one of the grand staircases in the theatre lobby. The style is fully in the Academic tradition. But the models’ sleepy gazes and the gold jewellery and shield hint at Klimt’s later style.

Burgtheater: Ceiling panel of the State Staircase Volksgartenseite (1886/1887) by Gustav and Ernst Klimt, Franz MatschBurgtheater

Ernst Klimt: Scene from Molière

Gustav’s brother Ernst was a great talent in his own right. Gustav even painted his brother (and Franz Matsch) in portrait as audience members of Romeo and Juliet. Tragically, Ernst died young, the same year as their father, 1892, devastating Gustav and changing his art forever.

The Faculty Paintings: Controversy and Tragedy

By 1891, Klimt was a member of the Austrian Artists’ Society and the recipient of several major awards. In 1894, he won a commission from the Austrian government to create 3 paintings for the ceiling of the University of Vienna, known as the Faculty Paintings. Here you see a studio where he completed some of that work. Klimt had begun to leave behind the Academic style and explore more expressive images. Personal tragedy enhanced this trend. By the end of the 19th century, he was forging a new path. This studio was characterized by higher rooms, which were necessary for the creation of the faculty images.

Medicine (1903/1904) by Gustav KlimtBelvedere

Faculty Painting, Medicine

The Faculty paintings consisted of three works: Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence. Rather than the Academic style, with historical costumes and idealized figures, Klimt painted people in torturous or sexual poses. They seemed suspended in an unsettling empty space. 

Compositional Sketch for "Medicine" (1897/1898) by Gustav KlimtThe Israel Museum, Jerusalem

Lost Faculty Works

Controversy erupted when Klimt displayed the Faculty paintings. Some critics hated their dark nature. Others praised their daring. The University never displayed them. Klimt returned his commission. The paintings were lost during World War II; few photos and sketches survive. At the World Exhibition in Paris in 1900, he won the gold medal for Philosophy.

The Vienna Secession

 Klimt’s art had diverged from the Academic style favoured by the Austrian Artists’ Society. In 1897 he and 13 other artists formally left the Artists’ Society and formed their own group: the Vienna Secession. This striking 1898 building by the architect Joseph Maria Olbrich was its headquarters and exhibit space. Klimt was the organization’s first president but soon resigned to focus on his art.

Popular Rebels

Though the Vienna Secession was formed to support “outsider” artists, it was quite popular with the public and critics. The Austrian government leased them the land to build the exhibition hall, and they introduced Impressionism and other new forms of European art to Vienna.

Beethoven Frieze: "The Hostile Powers" (Panel 5, short wall) (1901) by Gustav KlimtSecession

Changing Style

During the Secession period, Klimt’s art changed radically. Influenced by Japanese art, he composed with flat shapes and patterns. He became especially known for using gold leaf, seen here in a detail from the Beethoven Frieze, 1902.

Personal Life

While Klimt’s art was transforming dramatically at the turn of the 20th century, his personal life seemed to gain more stability. Some of this can be attributed to his lifelong companion, fashion designer Emilie Flöge, the sister of his brother Ernst’s wife. The Flöge family embraced Gustav, especially after Ernst’s death, and he spent summers vacationing with them on the Austrian Lake Attersee. This building in Vienna was the location of Emilie Flöge’s fashion salon.

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

Emilie Flöge

Flöge was a feminist fashion designer, businesswoman, and prominent figure in the Austrian art and cultural scenes. Letters between the pair suggest an intimate and respectful relationship. However, they never married, and Klimt fathered children with several other women.

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

Fashion Innovator

Some of Flöge’s fashions included “rational dress,” garments designed for comfort and worn without stiff corsets. Flöge and Klimt influenced each other’s use of pattern and shape. Klimt’s artistic and personal fancy for flowing robes might also have influences here.

Klimt’s Home

Klimt lived his entire life in and around Vienna and spent many years in this apartment with his mother and sisters. As a prominent artist, he occupied several studios around the city. Besides his summer trips to the Attersee, he occasionally travelled through Europe, to view the new art movements of the time. But his work was always completed in his home city.

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

Klimt’s Mature Style

At this time, Klimt developed his signature style, often painting reclining female nudes enfolded by companions and brightly patterned fabric. The background is flat but richly textured. Colours, facial expressions, and figures represent symbols of life, death, love, and connection. 

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

“Gold Period”

One of Klimt’s most notable artistic techniques was his use of gold leaf. He applied it in various textures to form shimmering patterns. He often used gold leaf in contrast with the skin of his female nudes, which he frequently painted in cool, pale shades.

The Palais Stoclet, Brussels, Belgium

This modernist estate was the project of art-lover and banker Adolphe Stoclet of Brussels, Belgium. As a supporter of the Wiener Werkstätte, he commissioned this facility to design the building, sculptures, furniture, and even fashion for his wife to wear to events at the mansion.

Nine Cartoons for the Execution of a Frieze for the Dining Room of Stoclet House in Brussels (1910–1911) by Gustav KlimtMAK – Museum of Applied Arts

Klimt was commissioned to create dining-room wall hangings. He no longer took public commissions, but this project allowed him to keep complete creative control.

Nine Cartoons for the Execution of a Frieze for the Dining Room of Stoclet House in Brussels: Part 4, Part of the tree of life (1910–1911) by Gustav KlimtMAK – Museum of Applied Arts

Drawings for Dining Room Wall Pieces

The mansion is private and the art works are not open to the public. These drawings, complete with corrections (in white) and written instructions, give a sense of the finished work. These drawings were eventually reproduced as mosaics, using mother-of-pearl, enamel, and gold leaf. They are some of Klimt’s largest works.  

Nine Cartoons for the Execution of a Frieze for the Dining Room of Stoclet House in Brussels (1910–1911) by Gustav KlimtMAK – Museum of Applied Arts

Abstraction and Influence

Much of the mosaic is a semi-abstract pattern of spiralling tree branches. This reflects Byzantine, Egyptian, and Japanese art, each of which emphasized rich patterns. At one end is a characteristic Klimt embracing couple, with the man wearing a Japanese kimono.

Klimt Villa Wien Nordseite by Baris AlakusKlimt Villa

Klimt’s Final Studio

Klimt’s later years were some of his most productive. His style was praised and sought after throughout Europe. Klimt enjoyed a comfortable life surrounded by family and friends. He spent many hours at his studios in the city. Sadly, Gustav Klimt’s life was cut short by illness.

Wien 13, Feldmühlgasse 11 (1918) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library

Klimt in his Garden

The garden outside the studio served as a retreat. It reflected the sense of comfort, decoration, and beauty he expressed in his art.

Rekonsturiertes Empfangszimmer von Gustav Klimt in der Klimt Villa (2019) by Sophie TillerKlimt Villa

Asian Influence

Klimt’s interest in Asian prints, with their flattened figures and richly patterned garments, is evident in his studio. Klimt himself is quoted as saying he sometimes skipped painting sessions in favour of reading books about Asian art in his garden.

Death mask of Gustav Klimt (1918) by Moriz SchrothWien Museum

Death Mask

In 1918, Klimt suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed. The stroke itself was not life-threatening, but while in the hospital, he contracted pneumonia, possibly related to the 1918 flu pandemic. The illness killed him on February 6, at the age of 55.

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