Gustav Klimt: Biography, Paintings & Drawings

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

In this lesson, explore the work of artist Gustav Klimt. A founding member of the Vienna Secession, he pursued a very personal, erotic, and emotional style of painting. In decorative and fine arts, Klimt created unique works that commented on the human condition.


Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was born near Vienna to an artistic family of limited financial means. His father, a Bohemian immigrant, was a gold engraver and his mother had great musical talent. Of the couple's five children, Gustav and his two brothers showed artistic promise.

In 1876, Klimt won a scholarship to the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts, where he trained as a mural painter. His younger brother, Ernst, also later studied at the school. The environment was firmly traditional, grounded in classical techniques such as drawing, anatomy studies, and oil painting. Viennese art at the time was highly realistic and portrayed figures who looked like real people. Klimt took these studies to heart. He began his career painting murals in public buildings, using models wearing costumes as his inspiration. But the deaths of both his father and Ernst in 1892 shifted his artistic focus. He became interested in Symbolism (especially the work of several Belgian painters), a movement that focused on the psychological and unconscious. It lent Klimt's painting a degree of mysterious reserve lacking in his earlier work.

Vienna Secession

Klimt became a founding member of the Vienna Secession movement. This group, which broke away from the Union of Austrian Artists, rejected conservative approaches to art and sought to provide exhibition opportunities for young artists who pursued styles other than those taught in traditional art schools. It also aimed to bring works by foreign artists to Vienna (especially the Impressionists) and published a magazine called Sacred Spring to feature members' works. Klimt was an editor of the magazine. The city government supported the effort and provided a location for an exhibition hall.

In 1894, he received a commission for three paintings to decorate the ceiling of the Great Hall Auditorium at the University of Vienna. The resulting works--Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence--caused an uproar. Critics from all walks of life called them extreme and pornographic and complained that they were full of vague symbolism. They were never displayed at the hall and Klimt later pulled out of the commission. All three works were destroyed in World War II, but photographic records remain.

Jurisprudence, 1899-1907

In Jurisprudence, you can see many elements that became fundamental to Klimt's work: the elongated, contorted figures; areas of highly decorated surfaces; and naked female forms surrounded by curving lines. With the exception of a few landscapes and seascapes, for the rest of his career Klimt focused on painting the human form, but one transformed by his vision into an otherworldly and yet very human species.

Gold Period

Beginning in 1898, Klimt created a series of paintings using gold leaf, extremely thin sheets of gold applied with an adhesive such as clay or water. Applying gold leaf is a labor-intensive process that results in bright, glittering surfaces. It is an exotic surface treatment and not one Klimt used by accident. Influenced by earlier cultures and styles, Klimt was interested in Byzantine art, especially the decorative mosaics and ceiling paintings found in churches in the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire (what we today know as Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, and Bulgaria). Human forms are almost subordinate to pattern and line but still rendered with skill.

An example of this style, and one of his most famous works, is the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, commissioned in 1903 by a wealthy industrialist and finished in 1907.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I

Preliminary drawing, Adele Bloch-Bauer
Preliminary drawing, Adele Bloch Bauer

In the final portrait and in a preliminary drawing, you can see how Klimt played with composition, the underlying way the painting is put together. The figure is foreshortened, portrayed not in profile but looking at us, with arms drawn so that they angle toward us. The artist focuses on costume and drapery. In the final work, her clothing becomes an enveloping swirl of lines and shapes. He also emphasized decoration with large mosaic-like sections behind her head. At the same time, you can recognize her as an individual.

In 1905, Klimt left the Vienna Secession to pursue his increasingly unique artistic vision. He also moved away from using gold leaf. His later works explored ideas of birth and death and have an almost otherworldly feel to them.

Importance of Drawing

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