Gustav Klimt was born on July 14, 1862 in the outskirts of Vienna in Baumgarten. He was the second of seven children born to Anna and Ernst Klimt, a metal engraver. In October 1876, Gustav was accepted at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts). The following year Gustav’s brother, Ernst, joined him at the Kunstgewerbeschule. They both intended to become drawing teachers.
After graduation from the Kunstgewerbeschule in 1883, Gustav and Ernst Klimt joined fellow painter Franz Matsch to set up their own studio, and formed the Künstler-Compagnie (Artists’ Company). They agreed to work in the historicist style, without stylistic differences, and with the allowance that one would take over another’s work should he be unable to complete it. They quickly attracted commissions throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany, Switzerland, and the Balkans. In 1886, the Künstler-Compagnie received its first significant commission: to paint the ceiling for two staircases of Vienna’s newly constructed Burgtheater. Emperor Franz Joseph I was pleased with the work.
In 1890, Gustav moved to Westbahnhofstrasse 36, where he lived for the rest of his life with his spinster sisters Klara and Hermine, and his mother Anna. Both Klimt brothers and Matsch joined the leading and conservative Künstlerhausgenossenschaft (Vienna Artists’ Association) also in 1890. Gustav’s brother Ernst married Helene Flöge in 1891 and Gustav painted his first portrait of her sister, Emilie, that same year.
Klimt never married, although he enjoyed discreet affairs with numerous models and was involved in a long, platonic relationship with his sister-in-law Emilie Flöge, who was a reform fashion designer. Klimt followed the same routine every day and was rarely seen in the midst of Viennese culture, despite the fact that he was the central figure of fin-de-siècle Viennese art scene at the time. There would come to be a contradiction in how he conducted his private life and how his work was accepted.
The Künstler-Compagnie moved into a studio at Josefstädter Strasse 21 in 1892. This remained Gustav’s studio until 1912. Gustav’s father died on July 13, 1892. His brother Ernst died on December 9 of the same year, and Gustav was appointed the guardian of his daughter, Helene Luise Klimt. The Künstler-Compagnie gradually dissolved around this time due to the death of Ernst Klimt and to the stylistic development of Gustav.
Klimt and Matsch received a commission in 1894 to prepare sketches for the ceiling paintings of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna. Klimt was assigned Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence. Matsch was responsible for Theology and the central painting. The assignment was fraught with difficulties from the beginning, as Klimt and Matsch no longer worked in a similar style. The so-called faculty paintings commission would prove to be a turning point in Klimt’s career, even though any resolution would be drawn out for at least a decade.
Concurrent with his work on the faculty paintings, Klimt and twenty other artists resigned from the Künstlerhausgenossenschaft in 1897 and founded the Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs (Union of Austrian Artists or Vienna Secession). Klimt was named the first president. Klimt, along with Josef Hoffmann and Carl Moll, were responsible for the exhibition programming at the Secession until 1905. Also in 1897, Klimt and Emilie Flöge began what became a lifelong correspondence. Klimt started spending his summers with the Flöge family and took up landscape painting.
At the Seventh Secession exhibition held from March 8-June 6, 1900, Klimt presented his first faculty painting, Philosophy, in an unfinished state. The exhibition attracted 35,000 visitors and the painting created a scandal. Eighty-seven professors signed a petition requesting that it not be installed in the University’s Great Hall, while only a dozen wrote in support of the work. The furor was caused because Klimt’s symbolism was not clear and some felt the topic was beyond his intellectual range. Klimt was vindicated when the painting was shown at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris that year when he was awarded a Gold Medal (Grand Prix) for the painting.
Klimt’s second faculty painting, Medicine, was shown at the Tenth Vienna Secession exhibition held from March 15-May 12, 1901. This also caused protests, in part because he did not acknowledge that medicine provided any healing powers.
For the Fourteenth Secession exhibition, which took place from April 15-June 27, 1902, Klimt created the Beethoven frieze. Like much of his work, it was greeted by both enthusiasm and protests.
In 1903, Klimt visited Venice and Ravenna, once in May and again at the end of the year. The early Byzantine mosaics of San Vitale made a lasting impression on him, and their influence was reflected in the development of his “golden style.” It was at this time that he began his so-called “golden-period.” The “golden style” is noteworthy for the use of gold and sometimes silver leaf. There is a sense of horror vacui as almost all surfaces are ornately covered, frequently with geometric or floral elements. The figure takes on the quality of an icon and often appears to inhabit multiple environments. One of the most superb examples of Klimt’s “golden style” is his 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.
In May of 1903, the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops) was founded by Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, and Fritz Waerndorfer. Several Klimt paintings were on permanent display there. Many clients of Klimt were also patrons of the Secession and the Wiener Werkstätte.
The Ministry of Education ultimately approved Klimt’s faculty paintings. However, due to the artistic differences between Klimt’s and Matsch’s works, it was suggested that Klimt’s be displayed not at the University Great Hall but in the Moderne Galerie. In the fall of 1903, the Secession staged the largest exhibition of Klimt’s works, called the Klimt Kollektive (Klimt Collective), presenting eighty works. It included the three faculty paintings which were shown together for the first time. In early April 1905 Klimt officially withdrew from the University of Vienna faculty commission. The paintings were returned to him and he gave back his fee with the assistance of his patron August Lederer. Lederer received Philosophy in exchange. Koloman Moser acquired the other two paintings some years later. They were all transferred to Schloss Immendorf for safekeeping during the war and unfortunately were lost during a fire in 1945.
In June 1905, the Vienna Secession split into two groups after prolonged differences of opinion among its members. One group rallied around Josef Engelhart and the other was dubbed the Klimt-Gruppe. This same year, Klimt received the commission to create the dining room frieze for the Palais Stoclet. He traveled to Brussels in 1906 to meet with Adolphe Stoclet.
The Klimt-Gruppe artists organized the 1908 Kunstschau (Art Show) in Vienna, presenting their work in an improvised exhibition hall designed by Hoffmann. The center of the exhibition was the Klimt Room, with sixteen paintings, including The Kiss, which was acquired by the Moderne Galerie, and the 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. The following year the Klimt-Gruppe artists staged a second temporary exhibition, which was international in scope.
In 1910, Klimt completed his designs for the Palais Stoclet frieze, which were executed by the Wiener Werkstätte, but he did not see them installed until 1914. The last ten years of his life were focused almost exclusively on landscapes and portraits, almost entirely all of women.
On January 11, 1918, Klimt suffered a stroke while at home that left him paralyzed on his right side. He was admitted to the Fürth Sanatorium and later moved to the Allgemeine Krankenhaus (General Hospital). Egon Schiele closely followed his state of health. Klimt died at the hospital on the morning of February 6 following a lung infection.
Klimt as a person was something of an enigma. He did not keep a diary or make remarks about his work, but he did leave an undated statement:
“I can paint and draw. ... Only two things are certain. 1) I have never painted a self-portrait. I am less interested in myself as a subject for painting than I am in other people, above all women. But other subjects interest me even more. I am convinced that I am not particularly interesting as a person. There is nothing special about me. I am a painter who paints day after day from morning until night. Figures and landscapes, portraits less often. 2) I have the gift of neither the spoken nor the written word, especially if I have to say something about myself or my work. .... Whoever wants to know something about me -- as an artist, the only notable thing -- ought to look carefully at my pictures and try to see in them what I am and what I want to do.”