Gustav Klimt was born in July of 1862 in Baumgarten, Austria, to a family of immigrants, along with six brothers and sisters. Because of their delicate financial situation, Klimt’s parents were always in search of affordable living situations, forcing them to travel a lot. Their position only got worse after the Vienna stock market crashed when he was only 11 years old. A year later, his young sister passed away, impacting him, but mainly his older sister and mother, Anna Klimt – who was very artistic as well.
In 1876, Klimt began attending the Vienna School of Applied Arts and Crafts, at only fourteen years old, where he studied architectural drawing with a scholarship. His younger brother also joined the school, and both wished to become drawing teachers. They teamed up later on to complete many commissions of murals in museums, theaters, and churches. Klimt’s work began to change, opposing many of the Classical symbolism used by academic artists, and he sought inspiration in the decorative style of the Byzantine era.
Along with painters, architects, and sculptors like Josef Hoffmann, Joseph Maria Olbrich, and Koloman Moser, Klimt formed the Union of Austrian Artists, more known as the Vienna Secession, and was the first president of the group in 1897. The modern group also created a magazine called Ver Sacrum. During this period, the Kunstlerhaus was the center of art venue but favored more conservative work over the avant-guard art, forcing modern artists to find an alternative way of promoting their work. After about eight years, Klimt and many other artists of the Secession left the group as they still struggled to maintain their sales and were often disagreeing with local galleries and their association with them.
The Austrian artist was quite reclusive and spent about eight to nine hours working in his studio, denying the entrance of guests. Because of this, little is known about his way of working, although we do know he often hummed the tune “Der Lindenbaum,” by Schubert. On his studio door, there was a note stating that knocking would be useless since he would not open. Some critics say that the way Klimt was included in pop culture can make his work seem one-dimensional. Also, some academics state that it was a mistake to intellectualize Klimt’s art because of his simplicity as a person. He never lived on his own, dividing his home with his family. Art historians of the past constructed the notion of him being a “great artist-hero,” but contemporary historians believe that there is an effortlessness to his artwork, as it reflects the artist himself.
At the age of thirty, Klimt was financially stable. He experienced the tragic loss of his father, Ernst, as well as his younger brother, leaving him responsible for his family. After many years of withdrawal from the art world, Klimt came back with a stronger desire to go against the artistic establishment by creating his own unique art. The painter’s work became even more symbolic, but not using the conventional iconography. His use of nudity caused much controversy, but he still received a significant amount of commissions from his patrons. Klimt was now working in the highly decorative style of the Art Nouveau, with bursts of color and large areas covered in gold. Klimt mostly painted portraits of sensual women but also became famous for his intense landscapes. Many upcoming artists were sponsored by him, like Egon Schiele.
Gustav Klimt passed away on February 6, 1918, after the Spanish flu caused pneumonia and as well as suffering from a stroke.