GUSTAV KLIMT – The Greatest Golden Artist… EVER

Gustav Klimt at his studio in Vienna


Gustav Klimt was born on the 14th of July 1862 in a suburb of Vienna in Austria.  His father, originally from Bohemia, was a goldsmith and engraver.  Having been bought up around the beauty of gold and its artistic qualities from an early age, it is small wonder that gold later became such a major influence in some of Klimt’s greatest works.


In 1876, at the tender age of only 14, he was admitted to the School of Arts and Crafts at the Museum of Art and Industry in Vienna  (Kunstgewerbeschule).  Having only been founded in 1864, the school was modelled on the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.


He attended until 1883, during which time he studied the cultures and decorative works of Greek ceramics, Egyptian and Assyrian reliefs and Slavic folklore.  He also learned about mosaics and metalworking and how to prepare his own paints.  By the time he left, he was not only a creative artist but a technical one too.


Gustav Klimt was soon to become one of the most sought after and innovative artists of his time, he was also one of the most controversial and continues to fascinate today.


Just a few yeas after leaving college, he had established himself as one of Vienna’s bright lights.  He was commissioned by the Vienna City Council to create some paintings of the Old Burgtheatre (1888), which was the centre of cultural and musical excellence at that time.  This commission was such a huge success for him, that his talents became even more in demand than ever.    (See my article about Joseph Pembauer…)


Between 1858 and 1888 there was a major programme of renovation and building along the Ringstrasse, the broad ring road that had replaced the ancient walls surrounding the old city centre.  Opulent new architecture was springing up in the centre of Vienna including theatres, museums and palaces of the wealthy bourgeoisie.


This monumental project of urban planning and cultural enrichment was making its mark on the City.  Grand and majestic buildings were created in many different styles with Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance all featured.  Vienna was a thriving hive of art, architecture, painting and exploding creativity, the perfect environment for someone like Gustav Klimt with his many extraordinary talents.


The Secession Building was one of these unique buildings for which Klimt was heavily involved with a group of other artists and architects.  The main façade of the Secession Building was designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich between 1897 and 1898.


The façade of the Secession Building is a work of art in its own right.  The detailed stucco-work on the walls of the entrance is contrasted by three masks of gorgons.  These masks represent painting, architecture and sculpture.  The phrase above the doorway reads :

“To every age its art and to art its freedom”.

And that is what was so admirable about Klimt, is the freedom with which he treats everything.  He is a free spirit who goes entirely his own way and celebrates the beauty in everything around him.  Constantly changing his art and always ready to try new styles.


The Secession Building in Vienna


The KLIMT-KOLLECTIVE (the 18th exhibition of the series), November to December 1903, was the only exhibition during the early period of the Secession Period to feature works by the top Austrian artists of the day.


Work exhibited by artists and designers of the day reads like a who’s-who of Viennese art royalty.  Klimt, Kokoschka, Schiele, Olbrich, Mosser and Hoffman, had formed a ‘collective’ to promote the very best of Austrian Art, however a rift between some of the members soon split them apart.


For this exhibition, Klimt included some of his most important early landscapes.  His work was very sombre and mysterious, seemingly reflecting his own inner mood following the deaths of his brother and father.  This period of his work was often described as “gloomy”, “soul destroying” and “oppressive” by critics.


However, several portraits were also shown at this exhibition.  Among them was a stunning portrait of Klimt’s lifelong partner, Emilie Floge.  This portrait of Emilie was painted in 1902 and was being exhibited for the first time in 1903.  This delightful painting reflects the closeness of the relationship between the artist and his subject.

(See separate article about Emilie Floge to see full length painting).


Portrait of Emilie Floge (1902)

His love of Art Nouveau starts to feature more strongly in his work and the harmonies and contrasts in his use of vibrant colours are much more pronounced.  The use of gold is being subtly introduced but does not yet take centre stage within his work.


Klimt will always be known for his outstanding portraits and the female form, rather than for his melancholy landscapes.  And so he should be.  His portraits of women are unique, erotic, powerful, highly decorative, rich in colour and pattern and surrounded in extravagant quantities of gold.


Portraits of beautiful ladies from the Viennese bourgeoisie made up at least a third of Klimt’s production.  He managed to capture their aura, beauty and mystery whilst celebrating their unmistakeable feminine strengths in a classic style.


Even though Klimt worked for 38 years as an extremely accomplished and revered artist, my personal view is that his best work was indeed during those years of his “Golden Style” / “Golden Phase” (only about 8 years), when he combined the brightest and most unconventional colours with pure gold and silver.  This clever use of styling, colours, materials, classical portraits and that Klimt genius transformed his work from absolute brilliance into the stuff of legends.


I believe his work will be admired and discussed for many many years to come because he was so much ahead of his time.  That, and the fact that his portraits are so very beautiful.



NATIONALITY  :  Austrian  (Austro-Hungarian Empire)

BORN  :  14th July 1862.   Baumgarten, Austria  (Suburb of Vienna)

DIED  :  6th February 1918.  Vienna.

MOVEMENTS & STYLES  :  Symbolism, Art Nouveau, The Vienna Secession, The Wiener Werkstatte, (Expressionism).

YEARS WORKED  :  1880 – 1918

GUSTAV KLIMT WEBSITE  :   http://www.klimt.com

SECESSION BUILDING WEBSITE  :  http://www.secession.at



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