Impressionist & Modern Art

21 Facts Gustav Klimt

By Zoë Vanderweide

1. He was the founding president of the Vienna Secession.

In 1897, Klimt and a group of twenty other painters, sculptors and architects renounced the conservative Künstlerhaus to form their own artistic group. Klimt was chosen as its president and was active in organizing exhibitions until he left the group in 1905. Known as the Wiener Sezession (Vienna Secession), the movement rejected the Vienna art establishment’s insular historicism and marked the beginning of modern art in Austria. While the Secession is not associated with a particular artistic style, its members were united in their rebellion against the academic tradition and their embrace of the international avant garde.

2. Women were his favorite subjects…

Klimt noted: “I am less interested in myself as a subject for painting than I am in other people, above all women.” Known for his enigmatic femme fatales, Klimt’s portrayals of women are marked by their erotic power. His Judith I (1901) famously upends the conventional narrative of the Biblical heroine as a virtuous instrument of God, instead portraying an unabashedly sensual woman exalting in her domination over man. In addition to the portraits and allegorical depictions for which he is best known, Klimt produced an astounding number of erotic drawings in his later years, many of them explicitly sexual.

3. …And he was a notorious womanizer.

Although he never married, Klimt had a great many lovers and is said to have fathered 14 children. He took pains to keep his affairs discreet and avoid personal scandal; as a result, the extent of his relationships with his female sitters, many of them wealthy society women, has been the subject of much speculation amongst historians. However, it is widely accepted that his studio, where he often painted in a billowing caftan with nothing underneath, served as the site for numerous liaisons.

Gustav Klimt, Judith, 1901. Collection of the Upper Belvedere Gallery , Vienna. Image Courtesy: Bridgeman Images

4. However, Klimt’s relationship with his muse and longtime companion, Emilie Louise Flöge, was probably chaste.

Flöge, whose sister Helene married Klimt’s brother Ernst in 1891, became his favorite model and lifelong companion. A successful fashion designer, Flöge’s love for costume and ornamentation matched his own, with Flöge creating and modeling Klimt’s designs in numerous photographs and paintings. One of Klimt’s most iconic works, The Kiss, is said to depict Flöge and Klimt as lovers. Many believe, however, that the relationship was not consummated. Instead, the nearly 400 surviving items of correspondence sent from Klimt to Flöge attest to an emotionally and intellectually intimate friendship. Klimt’s last words were reportedly, “Get Emilie.” Upon his death, he willed half of his estate to Flöge, with the other half going to his family.

Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge, wearing kaftans designed by Klimt. Image Courtesy: Bridgeman Images

5. He loved cats.

He had many pet cats, including his beloved Katze, pictured with the artist in an evocative 1912 photograph. The critic Arthur Roessler recalled a visit to Klimt’s studio, “surrounded by eight or ten mewing and purring cats” running wild through heaps of sketches. When Roessler questioned why the cats were allowed such liberty, Klimt replied: “It doesn’t matter if they crumple or tear a few sheets— they piss on others, and don’t you know, that’s the best fixative.” (For the record, it is not).

Gustav Klimt holding a cat.
Gustav Klimt holding his pet cat, Katze. Image Courtesy: Bridgeman Images

6. Klimt exemplified the Secessionist’s interest in Gesamtkunstwerk (“total artwork”).

Popularized by the German composer Richard Wagner, the concept was enthusiastically embraced by the Secessionists as they sought to create a harmonious synthesis of visual art, architecture and the performing arts. The 14th Secessionist Exhibition, an homage to Ludwig van Beethoven, represented the movement’s greatest achievement of Gesamtkunstwerk. Klimt’s contribution, the monumental Beethoven Frieze, was painted directly onto the walls of the Secession building; its opening was accompanied by a performance of Gustav Mahler’s adaptation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Klimt’s interpretation of Gesamtkunstwerk, which reached its apotheosis in his stunningly decorative Stoclet Frieze (1905-11), would influence later movements like Bauhaus and Constructivism.

7. Like his cultural contemporary Sigmund Freud, Klimt was fascinated by human sexuality, dreams and the unconscious.

Against the backdrop of conservative fin de siècle Viennese society, the burgeoning field of psychoanalysis presented a radical challenge to accepted attitudes on sex and the human psyche. As in Freud’s writings, Klimt’s artwork places sexuality at the center of emotional life, and uses dreamlike totems and symbols to express unconscious drives. He once stated: “All art is erotic”—an assertion with which Dr. Freud would undoubtedly have agreed.

Gustav Klimt, The Schlosskammer on the Attersee III, 1910. Image Courtesy:

8. While most famous for his figural works, Klimt was also a landscape painter.

In the late 1890s, Klimt began summering with the Flöge family at Lake Attersee in Austria, where he completed many of his en plein air landscape paintings. The Attersee locals, amused by Klimt’s apparent eccentricity, dubbed him “Waldschrat,” which roughly translates to “hobgoblin” or “wood gnome.” Klimt’s landscapes bear the stylistic hallmarks of his better-known works, featuring flattened compositions and his distinctive combination of naturalism, pattern and abstraction.

"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."
Gustav Klimt

9. His paintings were the subject of perhaps the most famous case of Nazi art theft.

The Czech sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer owned five Klimt paintings, including two portraits of his wife, Adele. After the annexations of Czechoslovakia and Austria in 1938, their assets became the target of Nazi plunder. Bloch-Bauer’s niece, Maria Altmann, filed a lawsuit in 2000 to recover the paintings from the Austrian government; the suit came before the Supreme Court in 2004 and was ultimately successful. In 2006, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was sold for the record-breaking sum of $135 million to cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder, who made it the centerpiece of the Neue Galerie collection. The case is depicted in the 2015 film Woman in Gold, starring Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann.

10. Although he became one of the most commercially successful artists of his time, he grew up in poverty.

Klimt, the second of seven children, was born in a small suburb of Vienna to Ernst Klimt the Elder, a gold engraver, and Anna Klimt (née Finster), an unsuccessful musician. Work was scarce in the Habsburg Empire, and the family moved frequently, living in five different homes between 1862–1884.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907. Collection of Neue Galerie , New York. The painting initially belonged to the Bloch-Bauers, confiscated by the Nazis, and bought by the Moderne Gallerie (now Österreichische Galerie), Vienna in 1941. In 2006, a court decision attributed the ownership of the painting to Maria Altmann, the niece of the Bloch-Bauers. She sold the painting for $135 million dollars to Ronald Lauder, who transferred it to the Neue Galerie. Image Courtesy:

11. Klimt mentored a new generation of artists, most notably Egon Schiele, with whom he appears to have shared more than just career advice.

In 1907, the 17-year-old Schiele sought out Klimt, whose work he greatly admired. Klimt took Schiele on as a protégé, introducing him to patrons and to the Secessionist arts and crafts workshop, the Wiener Werkstätte. Schiele’s early work is particularly influenced by Klimt’s style, as in Portrait of Gerti Schiele (1909), and the two remained close until both of their deaths in 1918. Klimt also arranged models for the younger artist— in 1911, he introduced Schiele to Wally Neuzil, who had modeled for Klimt and presumably been his mistress. Schiele and Neuzil commenced a four year affair which ended when Schiele married Edith Harms; in 1916, Neuzil was posing for Klimt again.

Profile view of a woman.
Egon Schiele, Gerti Schiele, 1909. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art , New York. Image Courtesy: Bridgeman Images

12. As a young artist, Klimt idolized the Viennese history painter Hans Makart.

Known as the “magician of color”, Makart’s love of pageantry and decoration made an indelible impact upon Klimt and the Austrian Art Nouveau. Klimt reportedly admired Makart so much that he once snuck into the painter’s studio to see his latest works by bribing Makart’s servants.

13. Before embracing the avant-garde, he was a successful academic painter.

After graduating from the Vienna Kunstgewerbeschule in 1883, Klimt, his brother Ernst and fellow painter Franz Matsch formed the Künstler-Compagnie, working in the historical style and taking numerous commissions for public buildings. In 1888, Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria awarded Klimt the Golden Order of Merit in recognition of his paintings at Vienna’s Burgtheater.

mythical figures in a landscape.
Hans Makart, Abundantia. The Gifts of the Sea, 1870. Collection of the Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

14. Personal tragedy spurred his artistic vision.

In 1892, both Klimt’s father and his brother Ernst died in quick succession, leaving him financially responsible for their families. During the period of grief that followed, Klimt began to reevaluate his artistic career and question the conventions of academic painting. With Ernst gone and a stylistic rift growing between Klimt and Matsch, the Künstler-Compagnie dissolved. While Klimt would not formally break with the conservative Künstlerhaus until 1897, historians trace his evolution toward the intensely personal, erotically charged Symbolist style for which he is most famous to this period.

15. Klimt’s last public commission sparked intense controversy.

Klimt agreed to take one last commission with Matsch in 1894 for the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna. He was responsible for three panels: Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence. Klimt’s paintings were never installed at the university—Medicine (1901) ignited particular furor for its obscure symbolism and erotic imagery, and was criticized as pornographic. Klimt was incensed, declaring: “Enough of censorship…I refuse every form of support from the state, I’ll do without all of it.” Unfortunately, none of the paintings survive today; all three were destroyed when retreating German SS forces set fire to Schloss Immendorf castle in 1945.

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-08. Collection of the Upper Belvedere Gallery , Vienna. Image Courtesy: Bridgeman Images

16. Klimt’s “Golden Phase” was inspired by Byzantine imagery.

Beginning in 1898 with Pallas Athene, this period was characterized by Klimt’s extensive use of gold leaf, floral and geometric motifs, and intricate decorative elements. In 1903, Klimt traveled to Ravenna, Italy, where he admired the Byzantine mosaics of the Basilica San Vitale. Their influence is unmistakable in the works created at the height of his “Golden Phase”, including Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) and The Kiss (1907–08).

17. Klimt was not interested in self-portraits…but he appears in at least one of his paintings.

Klimt once stated: “I have never painted a self-portrait.” Nevertheless, the artist makes a fleeting appearance in at least one early piece. When the Künstler-Compagnie was enlisted to create ten ceiling paintings for the Burgtheater’s Imperial Staircase, the commission was not sufficient to cover the cost of hiring models. Instead, the industrious trio used friends and family. In Klimt’s Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, all three artists (Klimt, his brother Ernst, and Matsch), along with his sisters Hermine and Johanna, are among the spectators, while his brother Georg portrays the dying Romeo.

18. Today, Klimt's artworks are among the most reproduced and ubiquitous in the world.

While his paintings sell for staggering sums (Oprah Winfrey sold Adele Bloch-Bauer II to a Chinese buyer in 2016 for $150 million), his oeuvre is also one of the most accessible—via posters, prints, keychains, fridge magnets, calendars and the like. His lushly sensual figures, glittering ornamentation and decoratively harmonious compositions have serious mass appeal— posters of Klimt’s work are dorm room staples, and museums sell more color reproductions of his paintings than any other artist’s.

A garden with flowers,
Gustav Klimt, Bauerngarten (Blumengarten), 1907. Sold at Sotheby’s London for £47.97 million in March 2017.

19. In a tongue-in-cheek nod to his commercial appeal, the Wien Museum created a “Worst of Klimt” contest in 2012.

Entrants submitted images of the strangest Klimt memorabilia they had encountered. Among the contenders: a saxophone, toilet seat, rubber duck, dog t-shirt and coffin. The prize ultimately went to a pearl encrusted goose egg, which opens to reveal a very dubious rendering of The Kiss.

20. He died in 1918 at the age of 55, a victim of the global flu pandemic.

In 1918, the so-called “Spanish flu” began its deadly sweep across the globe, ultimately infecting 500 million people and killing 3 to 5% of the world’s population. Klimt fell ill in early 1918, suffering complications leading to a stroke that paralyzed his right side and a lung infection that led to his death on February 6. He was not the only Viennese artist to be counted among the casualties; later that same year, his protégé Egon Schiele succumbed to the disease.

21. An enigmatic figure, Klimt’s oeuvre inspires endless interpretation and speculation.

Klimt avoided cafe society, didn’t socialize much with other artists, and kept his personal affairs discreet. In a rare surviving writing on his work and methods, Klimt states: “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." His intensely personal body of work, steeped in his meditations on sex, death, dreams and desire, offers a tantalizing glimpse into the psyche of the famously private artist.

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