Gustav Klimt Biography

Gustav KlimtIt seems appropriate to begin a Gustav Klimt biography with a quote from the artist himself: "Whoever wants to know something about me—as an artist which alone is significant—they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognize what I am and what I want."

As a member of the Art Nouveau movement, Klimt paintings are highly ornamental. Swirling lines and organic forms are favored over straight, realistic portrayals. Details layer upon details in Klimt artwork, in an explosion of excess. As seen in the famous painting by Klimt, The Kiss, human figures are sometimes entirely overshadowed and buried with decoration. Klimt paintings were meant to be tactile, organic and enjoyable even for the average viewer with lavish colors and organic, flowing lines. But no art is generated in a vacuum. To understand the paintings, we must understand the artist.

Birth and Education

Klimt was born in 1862 in Austria. His father was an engraver, and must have given the young Gustav a love of metals and metalworking. Metallics would figure prominently in The Kiss by Klimt as well as other works. In 1879, Klimt entered the Vienna Kunstgewerbe Art School, where he would study decorative arts for 4 years. In 1883, Klimt formed his own studio and began focusing on mural works. While his shop was successful, Klimt wanted more from his work and began looking for new opportunities.

Vienna Secession

In 1887, Klimt founded the Vienna Secession artistic group. These painters believed that art should be made for the people, enjoyable by all and not just by academics and learned scholars. This put the painters squarely in line with the Art Nouveau movement sweeping through the Western world. Here, organic forms were prized. Hand craftsmanship was cherished. All pieces, no matter how utilitarian, were to be made beautiful and flowing. Attention was paid to even the smallest detail. Klimt would leave the group in 1905, after several arguments with fellow painters, but his Art Nouveau roots would remain.

Klimt as Muralist

Klimt thought of himself as primarily a muralist. He was hired to paint murals for the University of Vienna auditorium, and generated pieces that featured flat planes and large swaths of gold leaf. These panels were not well received, as they contained erotic overtones in addition to the novel techniques. In later years, Klimt would have success as a muralist. His panels for the Stoclet Palace in Brussels are still on display today. In fact, one panel from this mural by Gustav Klimt, Tree of Life, is widely regarded as one of his best images and strongest representations of Art Nouveau ideals. In the right of the image, a couple embraces, their bodies nearly covered with squares and circles of color. To the left, a small tree grows, spreading whirls and circles of bark and branches. This Tree of Life by Gustav Klimt is alive and spreading, showing its organic tendrils.

Klimt as Portrait Painter

Klimt would paint portraits multiple times during his life, and these would become some of the most beloved, and controversial, of the Klimt paintings. The Kiss by Klimt, is rather tame. Completed in 1907, the couple is engaged in an erotic moment, but their bodies are shellacked by design. Other Klimt paintings, such as Danae, completed in 1907, and Judith and the Head of Holofernes, completed in 1901, were more frank about nudity. The human form is well on display here, with no gauzy fabrics or well-placed hands to disguise it. This sort of frankness about the human form and sexuality makes sense from an Art Nouveau perspective. The human body is organic and curvy and has a rightful place in a Klimt painting, especially when offset by the geometric, metallic circles and squares that proliferate in these images. The artist wants you to look at the curves. However, people at the time were uncomfortable with this sort of Klimt artwork, and he was often taken to task for his frank expression of sensuality and nudity.

The Golden Age

Gustav Klimt paintings completed between 1906 and the artist's death are considered part of his Golden Age. Metallics figure prominently. Many paintings by Klimt generated during this time, including The Kiss and Death and Life were well received by critics. In fact, the latter won first prize at the International Exhibit of Art in Rome in 1911. This is a truly astonishing Klimt painting, showing the artist at the height of his powers. On the right of the canvas, a swirl of healthy bodies is tangled and twisted. All ages are represented here, from babies, to healthy adults, to older people. Mild nudity is present here, but most figures are covered in a panel of pink and white check. To the left stands death, wrapped in a blanket of crosses, grinning. Life lives alongside death here, and all is executed beautifully.

Klimt was a prolific painter, always hard at work on the next image and the next project. In 1918, when Klimt was not yet age 60, he died of pneumonia, likely as a result of the flu epidemic that decimated the European population. He left behind many Klimt paintings still in progress, and it's difficult to know how he would have evolved as an artist, if he'd had the chance to flourish.


During World War II, a famous Klimt painting, Frau Adele Bloch-Bauer, was confiscated from a Jewish family by the Nazi occupiers. The family fought for decades to have the painting returned, and won the court battle in 2006. They sold this painting to the Neue Gallery in New York City for a record-breaking price of over $130 million. This makes Frau Adele Bloch-Bauer one of the most expensive paintings in the world.

Klimt paintings remain popular, and expensive, additions to museum collections, and spawn many imitators and fans. As a representative of the Art Nouveau style, Klimt's influence is hard to measure. His use of line and ornamentation, and the blurring of metalwork and craft with high painting, was truly innovative and resonates with artists today.