7 Surprising 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 centred largely around women and sexuality. Early on in his career his work was scorned, considered pornographic and derided as “perverted excess”. Now his works command some of the highest prices ever seen at auction. To his contemporaries he was considered brooding and aloof, not choosing to participate in the high-life of Vienna, however despite rarely leaving his studio he met a lot of women. He fathered 14 children and is rumoured to have slept with every woman he ever painted.

Here are 6 facts you may not have known about him:


1.Klimt preferred his cats over the Austrian high life which he painted.

One might assume that all the glitz on the surface of Klimt’s paintings would translate to an equally luxurious personal life, mixing it up with Vienna’s high society and reaping the benefits of his celebrity status.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Klimt was a bit of a homebody and spent his days working from home on his art in his signature long, flowing caftan, sandals and (famously) no underwear. His studio was full of cats both owned and strays, he even used cat urine to fix some of his works (yet they still sell today for $135,000,000!). Klimt stated that:

True relaxation, which would do me the world of good, does not exist for me.”

Perhaps the stresses of life were too much for him so he chose to remain indoors.


2. Klimt rose out of poverty thanks to his artistic talent. 

Klimt showed artistic promise and went to art school on a scholarship. After graduating Gustav Klimt and his brother Ernst agreed to focus their work on the murals and styles which were popular among Vienna’s upper class and aristocracy at that time so the brothers could support their family. They had to set aside any personal artistic inclinations to ensure work and would even be awarded a Golden Order or Merit from emperor Franz Josef for his contributions to murals. However events would unfold which changed the trajectory of his work and he would be received with ire rather than praise.


3. Klimt was quite the seducer.

A lifelong bachelor, Klimt had countless affairs during his lifetime, frequently with his models, and fathered 14 children along the way and was rumoured to sleep with every model he painted (was this why he wore no underwear?).

In Klimt's case his art certainly imitated life. His compositions were often highly erotic, featuring sexual subject matter and females positioned in sensual poses that were radical for his day. 

Despite numerous affairs with his models, he claimed the love of his life was his sister-in-law’s youngest sister, fashion designer Emilie Flöge. Flöge is the supposed muse of Klimt’s masterpiece, The Kiss, perhaps he is the male figure in the painting?


4.Klimt’s work was considered scandalous.

In 1900, Philosophy, one of the three murals Klimt was developing for the University of Vienna, was exhibited for the first time. Featuring various nude human forms and rather unsettling and dark symbolic imagery, the work caused a scandal among the university faculty. When the other two pieces, Medicine and Jurisprudence, were exhibited in subsequent exhibitions, they were met with an indignant response that ultimately resulted in them not being installed at the school, due to their ambiguous and pornographic nature. When several years later they were still not exhibited anywhere, an incensed Klimt withdrew from the commission and returned the fee in exchange for his paintings. Despite its rejection in Vienna, his Medicine was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris where it received the Grand Prix. 


5. The Kiss was bought and exhibited before it was finished.

The Kiss - Gustav Klimt - Mounted with Black Frame Image

The Kiss (Detail) - Gustav Klimt. Currently available as a museum quality print here.

Despite his awkward relationship with the Austrian government, it was actually the National Belvedere Museum Of Vienna who purchased Klimt's piece in 1908. They paid 25,000 crowns for it (around $250,000 today), which, at the time, was the highest price of a painting to have been sold in Vienna. The museum put it on display despite it lacking finishing touches and it hasn't moved since its purchase. It serves as a hallmark of artistic modernity in Vienna, so its exact worth today isn't officially known. But given that “Portrait Of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (a close second from Klimt's Golden Phase) sold for over $140 million back in 2006, we can bet that “The Kiss” is worth more and that figure is only increasing by the year.

6. Klimt despised writing.

The act of committing words to paper caused a great anxiety within Klimt. He even stated “Even when I have to write a simple letter I'm scared stiff, as if faced with looming seasickness. ”

7. Klimt hated selfies even more. 

Peculiarly for an artist, Klimt never once painted a self portrait. He must have been harassed about this because he eventually wrote an entire essay on the subject titled Commentary on a non-existent self-portrait. In it, he writes,

“I have never painted a self-portrait. 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…Whoever wants to know something about me… ought to look carefully at my pictures.” 

If Klimt preferred to allow his paintings to speak for him, then the message that The Kiss gave was extremely evocative - a man of intense passion, full of joy, in this moment devoted entirely to his love. It is no coincidence that Klimt's work is often linked to that of his Viennese compatriot, and near-contemporary, Sigmund Freud. When Klimt died in 1918, at the premature age of 55, several unfinished works of a strikingly sexual nature were found in his studio, as if revealing the erotic undercurrent latent beneath much of his earlier work.

What do you think Klimt’s pictures say about him?

Tannenwald 1 - Gustav Klimt - Mug Image

Tannenwald 1 - Gustav Klimt - Mug. Currently available here.

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