6 Little Known Facts About Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt was an Austrian artist known for his symbolism and his patronage of Art Nouveau in Vienna. He would use actual gold leaf in his paintings, which centered largely around women and their sexuality. 

Considered one of the best decorative painters to come out of the 20th century, Klimt was interesting in more ways than one. Not only does his work feature lots of historical significance, you’ll see that he wasn’t the typical artist at all. 

From his extreme introversion to his encouragement of other young artists, here are six little known facts about Klimt that you may have missed. 

Klimt was born to a family of artists. 

Klimt was born in Austria-Hungary in a town called Baumgarten near Vienna. His father, Ernst was a gold engraver and his mother, Anna dreamed of becoming a musical performer. Klimt’s two other brothers also showed great artistic talent, one of which became a gold engraver like their father.

For a while, Klimt even worked with his brother in an artistic capacity and they did a lot together in terms of adding value to the Vienna artistic community. It’s interesting that Klimt’s father worked with gold as gold became an important facet of Klimt’s career. He even had a “Golden Period.”

Hope II, 1908
Hope II, 1908

Klimt attended art school on a full scholarship.

Born into poverty, art school would have seemed out of the question for the Klimt family but Gustav received a full scholarship to the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts in 1876. He studied architectural painting and was quite the academic. 

Klimt’s brother, Ernst the younger, before he became a gold engraver, also attended the school. The two would work together alongside another friend Franz Matsch, later starting the Company of Artists after receiving numerous commissions. 

His professional career began painting interior murals and ceilings in various public buildings throughout Vienna, his most successful series of that period being Allegories and Emblems

Klimt never composed a self-portrait.

In this day and age of daily selfies on Instagram, it seems like everyone is a fan of the self-portrait these days. Similarly, for artists before the internet was invented, self-portraits are common among artists. 

Still, Klimt was so introverted and considered a humble man and therefore, never painted a self-portrait. Perhaps growing up in poverty, he never became someone of wealth and vanity that he felt required self-portraiture. Still, it’s an interesting concept and one you don’t hear about very often.

Klimt rarely left the city of Vienna.

Klimt had a sort of love affair with the city of Vienna. Instead of traveling, he focused on making Vienna a hub for the best art in the world in any way he could.  

In Vienna, he started two artist groups, one, as previously mentioned was the Company of Artists where he assisted in painting murals in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. In 1888, Klimt was honored with the Golden Order of Merit from Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria and became an honorary member of the University of Munich. 

Sadly, Klimt’s brother passed away and he would later become a founding member of the Vienna Succession. The group helped to provide exhibitions for young, unconventional artists, created a magazine to showcase members’ work, and brought international work to Vienna. 

The Succession was also an opportunity for Klimt to branch out and pursue more artistic freedom within his own compositions. Overall, it is clear that Klimt was a true ambassador for the city of Vienna and probably had a lot to do with how he never left. 

Klimt was never married but he was the father of 14 children. 

Although Klimt never had a wife, it was rumored that he had love affairs with every woman he ever painted. Of course, these claims are unverifiable but, even out of wedlock, Klimt fathered 14 children, only recognizing four of them.

It’s clear that the artist loved women and he painted them beautifully. It seems he just never found the right one or he enjoyed the single life.

His closest companion was Emilie Floge, his sister-in-law and the widow of his late brother, Ernst the younger. Most art historians agree that this relationship was intimate, but platonic. If there were romantic undertones, it’s rather certain that these sentiments never became physical. 

In fact, on his deathbed, Klimt’s last words were “send for Emilie.”

One of Klimt’s most famous and expensive paintings, Adele Bloch-Bauer I and Adele Bloch-Bauer II had previously been stolen by Nazis during World War II.

Adele Bloch-Bauer was a patron of the arts and close friend of Klimt. He painted her portrait twice and the masterpieces hung in the Bloch-Bauer family home after their completion. 

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907

In the thick of World War II and when Nazis occupied Austria, the paintings were seized along with all private property. They were later held in the Austrian Museum after the war before a court battle had them returned to the niece of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, Maria Altmann, along with three other Klimt paintings.

In 2006, Oprah Winfrey bought Adele Bloch-Bauer II at a Christie’s auction for nearly $88 million and it had been loaned to the Museum of Modern Art from 2014 to 2016. In 2016, the painting was sold again, this time for $150 million, to an unknown buyer. It was on display at the Neue Gallery New York until 2017 and now resides in the owner’s private gallery.

Adele Bloch-Bauer II, 1912
Adele Bloch-Bauer II, 1912

Many art critics would agree that these are beautiful paintings worth a lot of money. After all, Klimt did paint with real gold. But another reason for such a high value often comes back to restitution. Because of their historical significance, these paintings are worth hundreds of millions of dollars and are some of the most expensive artworks ever sold. 

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