Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt (July 14, 1862 – February 6, 1918) was an influential Austrian painter of the symbolist school and one of the leading lights of the Vienna Secession movement. He was equally at home working in the fine as well as the decorative arts and this is what makes him unique. Many of his works have become iconic and are instantly recognizable.

Gustav Klimt Summary:

  • Klimt’s work usually depicted the female body with an air of eroticism.
  • Despite being known for his allegories and decorative portraits, Klimt also painted landscapes.
  • Japanese art and its methods had an impact on him.
  • He found success at a very young age, but still chose to reside with his family.
  • He and other artists founded the Vienna Secession that gave young and unorthodox artists a platform to display their work.

Gustav Klimt Famous Paintings:

Early Life

Gustav Klimt was born in Baumgarten, near Vienna, which was then the capital of the Austrian Empire. He was the second of seven children. He attended a school for fine arts and crafts in Vienna and he experienced real poverty at this time.

Gustav painted with his brother and friend many murals that were very popular. As a young man, Klimt received a gold medal for his work on murals.  In 1892 his father and brother died, and he had to provide for his family. Their deaths marked a turning point in his art.

Klimt was one of the founding members Vienna Secession Group. This was a loose alliance of artists who wanted to challenge the political and artistic establishment.  Klimt lived with his mother, but this did not stop him from having many affairs and he is believed to have fathered up to 14 children.


Klimt was very close to his mother with whom Anna Klimt (née Finster), who had in her youth been a talented singer. His father Ernst Klimt senior was a well-known goldsmith and engraver which certainly influenced his future use of gold in his art. Gustav’s younger brother was also a well-known artist.

Painting style

Gustav Klimt drew from the decorative arts in his work, which is often very detailed. He was innovative in his use of materials such as gold which he became famous for using. Klimt’s figures are often highly stylized.

He initially was a history painter, but he continued to refine his work until they are shimmering patterns that are almost abstract forms, best seen in his landscapes. Klimt painted many nudes and he was a master of erotic art.  Klimt’s paintings, with Judith and the Head of Holofernes being a great example, are often inlaid with gold leaf, especially during his so-called Golden Phase.

The artist often deliberately flattened his compositions and many of his works have often been likened to icons. These are often seen as critical of the hypocrisy of the Austrian Empire and its conservative values.

The Viennese painter also continued to paint historical paintings and images. Klimt was a symbolist and among his themes were the close relationship between love, death, and sex. The Viennese was famous in his time for his often-massive murals and friezes. Klimt was a master draughtsman and he left three massive folios of prints, that have proven to be immensely popular.

Education and influences

Klimt was educated at a school of applied arts and crafts called Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule, which is now a part of the University of Applied Arts Vienna. His father was a tremendous influence on his unique use of gold in his paintings.

Gustav Klimt’s First Major Work

His first major work was Idylls, a Neo-classical mural which he painted in 1884. It is now located at the Historical Museum of the City of Vienna in Austria. This work is highly symbolic and allegorical, we see a mother tending to her two young children in the center, with warm colors and tenderness, care. Outside of this we see two men in darker colors, looking away. Lifeless, cautious, angst.

Klimt would go on to paint approximately 200 major works of murals and paintings. He also created numerous drawings and objects.


Klimt was influenced by Austrian historical painters. His discovery of Byzantine art and its icons were crucial in his development as an artist. 


Many of Klimt’s works were considered obscene and his works were attacked by the Catholic Church. Many of his works were seized by the Nazis and taken from Jewish families. Many of these were only returned to their rightful owners after years of court cases as with the Altmann family. 

Lost paintings

Several of Klimt’s murals and pubic paintings were lost during World War II as the Soviets advanced on Vienna in 1945. The murals ‘Philosophy’, ‘Medicine’, and ‘Jurisprudence’ were destroyed by the Nazis rather than allow them to fall into Russian hands. 

Final painting

Klimt’s final masterpiece is thought to have been his Portrait of Friederike Maria Beer from 1917. The Austrian master left many paintings unfinished.

Later Life

Klimt was very famous during his life and received many commissions.  He rarely socialized with other painters and led a quiet life. He had many affairs but was very discrete. Klimt won many international prizes. He lived in Vienna during World War I. 


Gustav Klimt fell ill during the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918 which immediately followed World War 1 and he died of a stroke.  After his death, his reputation went into decline and it was only truly  revived in the 1970s.

Famous paintings

Among Gustav Klimt’s symbolist masterpieces are Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901) and Three Ages of Women (1905). His most famous portraits are the  Portrait of Fritza Riedler (1906) and Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907). His Beethoven Frieze is one of his best-known murals (1902).  Some of his best work was in the landscape genre and include Rosebushes under Trees (1900). Perhaps Klimt’s best-known work is The Kiss (1907) which is possibly one of the best-known works in all of the twentieth-century art. It is an oil-on-canvas painting that is overlaid with gold, platinum, and silver. 

Sold paintings

In 2016 Klimt’s 1907 portrait, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, fetched $135 million dollars at auction. Many of his paintings command tens of millions in auctions. Even his drawings can fetch sums in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. 


Klimt was very supportive of younger artists.  In particular, he was a decisive influence on  Egon Schiele. The Austrian work was also influential in the evolution of the decorative arts. Many believe that the Austrian was a pioneer in the Art Nouveau movement.

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