Gustav Klimt was an Austrian Symbolist painter and a member of the Vienna Secession movement. He was born in July 1862. His father worked as a gold engraver, and his mother wanted to be a musician but could never pursue it professionally. Klimt was a talented artist, even as a young child. At the age of 14, he enrolled at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts on a full scholarship. Here he was trained in classical style of architecture and painting. At first, Klimt only wanted to be a drawing teacher, but when he started winning commissions to paint, both while he was a student and after his graduation, he decided to open up an art studio with his brother Ernst and a friend named Franz Masch.
Their studio was called the Company of Artists. Capitalizing on the popularity of the historical style of painting that was prevalent amongst the noble class in Vienna at that time, they decided to follow it in order to earn commissions for new projects. They were awarded the highest honor from the Austrian Emperor called the Golden Order of Merit, in recognition of their contribution to the arts. In 1890 they joined a group called Vienna Artists Association. However, the very next year, both his father and brother passed away, leaving Klimt bereft. Around this time, his style of painting underwent a major change. He shunned naturalism in favor of symbolism. He resigned from the Vienna Artists Association and founded a new organization called the Vienna Secession. This served as a support group for young artists, who wanted to break away from traditional styles of painting.
The Vienna Secession began to hold exhibitions which became very popular. Klimt’s mural titled “Philosophy” was exhibited in 1900, and became one of his most famous works. When the painting was completed, it caused a huge scandal amongst the faculty of the University of Vienna, who had commissioned it. It featured dark symbols and nude images. Klimt returned the money he had received for it and took his painting back. Despite these setbacks, Klimt continued to become more and more successful. He produced many masterpieces during this time, which came to be known as his Golden Phase. Some of his widely acclaimed paintings during this time were “Pallas Athena”, “Judith”, “The Kiss” and “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I”. This painting was captured by the Nazis during World War II and ultimately returned to Bauer’s niece Maria Altmann, who auctioned it off for $135 million. This painting holds the record for the most expensive work of art ever to be sold at an auction.
Towards the end of his life, Klimt’s work mostly featured sketches and paintings of nude and semi-nude women, many of which had gold leaf symbols. He was never married but had several love affairs with his models, and is believed to have fathered at least 14 children. One of his closest friends was a woman named Emilie Floge, who remained with him until his death. In 1911, his painting “Death and Life” was awarded the first prize at an international exhibition in Rome, which Klimt considered to be his greatest achievement. In 1918, he suffered from a stroke and became partially paralyzed. Gustav Klimt died shortly afterwards at the age of 55.