Gustav Klimt was commissioned by the Vienna City Council to paint images of the Old Burgtheater, the City’s Opera House, which was built in 1741 and was due to be demolished when its replacement building had been completed in 1888.
His painting, the “Auditorium of the Old Burgtheater” (1888), was an image of the interior of the theatre from the stage, looking out towards the audience. It was a detailed study of the elaborate features of the Old Burgtheater, but more significantly, it showed many of those from Vienna’s high society who regularly attended its performances. He painted miniature portraits of many of the most well-known ‘celebrities’ of the day and members of Vienna’s high society into the painting.
When word of this commission was leaked to the public, many people begged Klimt to insert their portraits, however small into the picture, which was done through special private sittings with the artist. Being immortalised on canvas as a regular attendee at the Old Burgtheater was considered an enormous boost to one’s social status. As a result, the painting serves not only as a valuable record of the theatre’s architecture, but also as a gallery of the City’s political, cultural and economic elites – over 150 of them in total.
Among them are Austria’s Prime Minister, Vienna’s Mayor, the surgeon Theodor Billroth, the composer Johannes Brahms, and actress Katherina Schratt (who was the Emperor’s mistress). Even though each of these portraits are tiny, the precision achieved in capturing each individual is truly outstanding.
Klimt was awarded the coveted Emperor’s Prize in 1890 for his painting the “Auditorium of the Old Burgtheater” (1888). This significantly raised his profile within the Viennese Art Community, and many important public and private commissions soon followed.
Following the success of his work at the Old Burgtheater, one of Gustav Klimt’s early paintings which greatly featured gold was a portrait of Joseph Pembauer. The“Portrait of Pianist Joseph Pembauer” (Josef Pembaur) (1890), was a tribute to the highly popular musician.
The portrait of the pianist is a stunning photographic image of Pembauer which is contrasted by the flat background with its stylised lyre and symbols. Despite its gold background this portrait is not one of Klimt’s renowned “Gold Style” paintings. He was still developing and perfecting his methodology for that period of his work.
He continued for a while to use gold in a mostly ‘decorative’ role within his paintings and not as the main focus. He used gold leaf on his frame panels, such as “LOVE” and the “PORTRAIT OF JOSEF LEWINSKY” (1895). Gold then became an ‘ornamental background’ element in the two versions of “ALLEGORY OF MUSIC” (1895 and 1898).
Klimt truly embraced the power of gold within his paintings and used it as a dominant compositional material in 1901 with his sensual portrait of “JUDITH I”. (Judith I is featured in a separate post about Klimt on this site).
TITLE : Portrait of Pianist Joseph Pembauer
PAINTED : 1890
FORMAT : Oil, Gold Leaf on Canvas
SIZE : 69 cm x 55 cm
GUSTAV KLIMT WEBSITE : http://www.klimt.com
LOCATED : Tiroler Landesmuseum, ‘Ferdinandeum’, Innsbruck
MUSEUM WEBSITE : http://www.tiroler-landesmuseen.at