Gustav Klimt's Tree of Life, Stoclet Frieze: Meaning & Painting

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.

When is a tree more than a tree? The idea of the Tree of Life has been used as a symbol since ancient times. In this lesson, explore its use in decorative artwork by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt.

Gustav Klimt and Art for a New Age

When is a picture of a tree more than just a simple tree? The idea of the Tree of Life with its connections to heaven and earth has been an important symbol since ancient times. In this lesson, we're going to explore an image that uses a tree as a metaphor for life and unity. But first, let's discuss the background of the artist who created it.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was an Austrian artist interested in the decorative qualities of art. In 1897 he helped found a group of artists called the Vienna Secession. They rebelled against conservative academic art in favor of more decorative surfaces and new ideas for the coming turn of the century. Klimt's work was known for its intense symbolism and erotic imagery. Sometimes viewed as scandalous and at other times celebrated, he became one of the most prominent artists of the Vienna Secession.

The Palais Stoclet

By the early 1900s, Klimt enjoyed great critical acclaim and financial success. This time in his life is sometimes called his Golden Phase because of his success and because many of his works used gold leaf to great decorative effect.

In 1905, Klimt was commissioned, along with several other artists, to decorate the interior of the Palais Stoclet, the home of a wealthy Belgian industrialist in Brussels. Between 1905 and 1911, he designed and created a series of three large panels as a frieze for the mansion's dining room. A frieze is a decorative band of ornament on a wall or walls near a ceiling. The Stoclet Frieze stretched across three walls of the dining room.

The Tree of Life and the Stoclet Frieze

Klimt's design for the Stoclet frieze included three parts, two almost identical large images with a tree and human figures opposite each other on the long walls and a smaller, more abstract image on the far wall.

Stoclet Frieze: composite image of the left side of the dining room where the image begins with the figure of the lone woman called Expectation. This view also includes the small back panel with the more abstract image.
left side of the Stoclet Frieze

Stoclet Frieze: composite image of the frieze as it wraps around the right side of dining room. This view includes the small abstract section on the far wall and the embracing couple called Fulfillment.
image of frieze of right of dining room

The Tree of Life, which dominates both large images, is an old idea that dates back to prehistory. It is a symbolic image that connects life and death and heaven and earth. The roots of the tree begin underground, in the realm of the underworld. The trunk then breaks through to the earth and rises to the sky. The upper tree branches curl, twist and intertwine as they connect to the heavens. So, the Tree of Life represents the continuity of life as well as its complexities. It unites all elements of life. Klimt further emphasizes this connectedness by his use of a flattened style and design elements that envelope the entire surface.

Design detail for Tree of Life from the Stoclet Frieze
Design for Tree of Life

This is also true of the human figures beside each tree. One is a single woman in a pose reminiscent of ancient Egyptian art. Called Expectation, she wears an elaborately patterned dress that expands as it gets closer to the ground. Beside the second tree is an embracing couple, wrapped in clothing that becomes a unifying decorative form. They're called Fulfillment. All the images feature a strong sense of flattened space and surface decoration. Clothing melds into patterns that echo the pattern of the tree.

Design detail for Fulfillment, the embracing couple in the Stoclet Frieze
Embracing couple

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