I know only one thing for certain’, Gustav Klimt once said, “that I’m a poor fool.” This, however, could hardly be further from the truth. Klimt, who died on this day in 1918, is the most well known Austrian artist in the world, as well as one of the most controversial. His fame was earned as one of the most notorious and bohemian figures from fin-de-siècle Vienna—the great age of Austrian art—painting beautiful but scandalously erotic artworks that are now considered masterpieces.
Klimt was born on 14 July 1862, in the Viennese suburb of Baumgarten, the second of seven siblings. At a young age he was sent to the city’s Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) and soon started collaborating with other artists on the sumptuous interior decorations of the Ringstrasse buildings. He worked for years on the painstaking creation of decorative wall murals and ceiling paintings in buildings throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1888 he was awarded the Golden Order of Merit from Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria, for his contributions to the Burgtheater in Vienna.
However, as time passed, Gustav Klimt was increasingly interested in further developing his own practice, and elaborating his own formal language of fleshly figurative painting, intricate mosaic-like patterning and Art Nouveau ornamentation. In 1897 he helped to found, and became the first president of, the Vienna Secession—a group with the stated intention of creating a renewal of art—as well as its periodical Ver Sacrum (Sacred Spring). They opened a Secession building on Vienna’s Karlsplatz, and used this as an exhibition space from which to propagate their new movement.
Around this time, Gustav Klimt was also finishing up a long-standing commission of three ceiling paintings for the Great Hall of the University of Vienna: Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence . Once completed, their sensual depiction of undressed female forms prompted an outcry, and they were not allowed to be displayed in the Great Hall after all. He was accused of turning traditional allegory and symbolism into the “pornographic.”
Gustav Klimt worked on his paintings in his studio at home, often accompanied by an attractive model in a state of undress, and usually wore a comfortable outfit of sandals, flowing robe, and no underwear. And—although he was certainly very sexually active, and fathered children with a few women—he avoided any personal scandals and kept his affairs discreet. “I have never painted a self-portrait,” he once said. “I am less interested in myself as a subject for a painting than I am in other people, above all women. There is nothing special about me. I am a painter who paints day after day from morning to night. Who ever wants to know something about me, ought to look carefully at my pictures.”
Photo Credit: © The Gallery Collection/Corbis
Photo Caption: “The Kiss” by Gustav Klimt, 1907-1908.