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Gustav Klimt: A Brief Biography

Tragedy and rebellion sparked the artist's unique painting style for which he is now famous

Born in Vienna, Austria, in 1862, Klimt was the son of a gold engraver and was raised in a modest yet highly artistic household. At the young age of 14, he left the traditional education system to attend the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts on a full scholarship. Klimt’s formal training focused on classical architectural painting.

Shortly after his graduation in 1883, Klimt opened the Company of Artists in collaboration with his younger brother Ernst and friend Franz Masch. Focused on creating murals in the academic style, the group set their sights on appealing to the tastes of the upper class. This adherence to the traditional style won the group commissions for various major public projects, and the framework of the style allowed the three individual artists to work interchangeably. During their seven years together, the Company of Artists painted murals for the Vienna Burgtheater and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, for which they are still known today. In 1890, the group joined the conservative Vienna Artists’ Association, the primary artistic group responsible for the city’s major exhibitions during the period.

1891 marked a turning point in Klimt’s career, steered by artistic growth born out of personal tragedy. In the same year, Klimt’s father and brother Ernst died. The profound loss of his brother, also a major artistic collaborator and confidant, and his father sparked the first steps of developing the personal style for which Klimt is now best known. Relying heavily on stylized decorative elements, symbolism, and a range of outside influences, Klimt began to explore his own artistic freedom outside the confines of the academic style of painting in which he was trained during his schooling.

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Painting of Mäda Primavesi (1903–2000) by Gustav Klimt (Austrian, Baumgarten 1862–1918 Vienna). oil on canvas ca. 1912 from The Met’s collection.

Klimt continued to explore this more personal style of painting. In 1897, he and a group of artists resigned from the Vienna Artists’ Association to form their own group, known as the Vienna Secession. Members were unified in their rejection of the predominant classical academic style in favor of each artist’s individual experimentation. In addition, they focused efforts on supporting and exhibiting nontraditional and international art at home in Vienna. Nominated as the first president of the group, Klimt created the Secession’s symbol, a painting of the Greek goddess Pallas Athena, now known as the first in a series of works from his most iconic period in painting.

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The Kiss by Gustav Klimt ca. 1908. From the collection of Österreichische Galerie Belvedere.

By 1900, Klimt became famous for his Art Nouveau-style work featuring highly stylized designs and the controversial, erotic nature of his subjects. Beginning with his painting of Pallas Athena, Klimt had entered what is now known as his “Golden Phase,” a series of paintings featuring an extensive use of gold leaf and a compressed sense of perspective, which also includes his paintings “The Kiss” (1908) and “Tree of Life” also known as the Stoclet Frieze (1909). Housed at Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere and the Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna, Austria; respectively, these gleaming masterworks are among the artist’s more recognizable and celebrated works of art. In celebration of these dazzling paintings, find a selection of Klimt-inspired pieces to take home by clicking here.

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