Given the heights to which he would rise in the Viennese art world, Gustav Klimt’s beginnings were hardly auspicious. The son of a poor Bohemian goldsmith, Klimt grew up with his brothers, Ernst and Georg, and sisters, Klara, Hermine and Johanna, in the tenements of what is today Vienna’s 14th District. (A fourth sister, Anna, died at the age of five when Gustav was twelve.) By the time Gustav reached adolescence, his family’s always precarious financial situation had worsened, and it was clear that he and his two younger brothers would have to support the family. Gustav, whose artistic talent was already evident, therefore applied not to the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts, where the leading artists and architects taught and studied, but to the more commercially oriented Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts).
Klimt initially planned to become a drawing instructor, but after he had completed the preliminary coursework, the Director of the Kunstgewerbeschule encouraged him to instead join the department of figural drawing and painting. Although the normal program of study at the Kunstgewerbeschule comprised two to three years, Klimt remained there an astonishing seven years. The Kunstgewerbeschule afforded invaluable professional contacts, and Klimt began earning a living as an artist years before he left the school. As early as 1879, he began collaborating with his younger brother Ernst (who had entered the Kunstgewerbeschule two years after he did) and another fellow student, Franz Matsch. The trio eventually established a formal workshop, which they dubbed the Künstler-Compagnie der Gebrüder Klimt und Matsch (Artists’ Company, Klimt Brothers and Matsch).
At the time, the Austrian government, bolstered by a protracted economic boom, was sponsoring new public works all over the Empire. This building program–crowned by the grand edifices along Vienna’s fabled Ringstrasse–generated a wealth of commissions for artists. Through the Kunstgewerbeschule, the Künstler-Compagnie gained entrée into this lucrative realm. The trio began by designing curtains and murals for provincial theaters, and gradually gained access to the studio of Hans Makart, Vienna’s reigning art star. A favorite of the Imperial court, Makart was not only a sought-after society portraitist, but also a popular sensation, whose monumental canvases drew thousands of viewers and who was frequently called upon to create elaborate wall decorations for the new Ringstrasse buildings. Shortly before Makart’s death in 1884, the Künstler-Compagnie was invited to help complete one of his last projects: the murals for the quarters of the Empress Elizabeth at the Hermesvilla in the Lainzer Tiergarten.
The Hermesvilla murals marked a turning point for the Künstler-Compagnie. Not only was this their first significant Imperial commission, but it brought them to the attention of the Emperor’s favorite architect, Karl von Hasenauer. Hasenauer was responsible for the Künstler-Compagnie’s first major Viennese assignment, a cycle of paintings for the new Burgtheater. Klimt received the Emperor’s Golden Order of Merit for his contributions to this project in 1888, and a second prestigious commission in the Imperial capital followed soon thereafter. In 1890, the Künstler-Compagnie was asked to complete the staircase decorations for the Kunsthistorisches Museum, another of Makart’s unfinished assignments. In scarcely ten years, the Künstler-Compagnie had made it from the provinces to success in the capital. Blessed with Imperial patronage and, symbolically, with the mantel of the revered Makart, the members of the Künstler-Compagnie seemed poised to become the darlings of the Austrian establishment.
As it transpired, however, this honor was accorded to only one of the three: Franz Matsch, who developed a sizable following among the aristocracy and was himself ennobled in 1912. By this time, Ernst Klimt was long dead, and Gustav’s career had taken a very different turn. Stunned by Ernst’s death from pericarditis in 1892, Gustav entered a period of artistic withdrawal that strained his relationship with Franz more or less to the breaking point. With the Künstler-Compagnie in shambles, Klimt nevertheless agreed in 1893 to share one final assignment with Matsch, a series of murals for the University of Vienna.
The University project proved decisive in confirming Klimt’s break with the conventional, establishment scene represented by Matsch and the Künstler-Compagnie. Both he and Matsch were to execute a series of canvases depicting various University faculties, to be installed on the ceiling of the school’s auditorium. Working independently from Matsch on his three given subjects–Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence–Klimt produced a group of canvases that precipitated a scandal unlike anything ever before experienced in the staid Imperial capital. When Klimt’s canvases were first publicly exhibited, the nudity and in some cases blatant ugliness of the figures, combined with the absence of mollifying historical or literary references, was shocking. After enduring years of protracted protests from journalists and University professors, Klimt finally renounced the commission in 1905.
Klimt’s changing allegiances were further evidenced by his role in the founding of the Vienna Secession in 1897 and of the Wiener Werkstätte in 1903. The artists of the Secession, though representing disparate stylistic points of view, were united in their opposition to the conservative policies of the Secession’s predecessor, the Künstlerhaus (at the time the only venue for the exhibition of contemporary art in Vienna). The Secessionists sought to revitalize Austrian art through exchanges with foreign colleagues and by promoting a more organic integration of the fine and applied arts. This latter approach found its ultimate flowering in the Wiener Werkstätte, a design collective established by the designers Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, and the financier Fritz Wärndorfer.
From the outset, Klimt associated less with other painters at the Secession than with the faction that came to be known as the “Stylists”: those, like Hoffmann and Moser, whose primary interest was design and the applied arts. The fact that the Secession included architects and artisans, as well as fine artists, and on occasion exhibited crafts, constituted a highly unusual mingling of “high” and “low” art forms. Not surprisingly, friction soon developed between the Stylists and the “Naturalists,” as the opponents to Klimt’s clique came to be called. The conflict between these two factions involved both aesthetics and money. Led by the painter Joseph Englehart, the Naturalists favored a far more traditional approach to painting. While they did not object to the applied arts per se, they drew the line at the full merger of craft and art advocated by the Stylists. Furthermore, the Naturalists resented the broadened economic base that the Wiener Werkstätte afforded their rivals. Englehart’s group felt that the Stylists’ association, through the Secession artist Carl Moll, with the commercial Galerie Miethke constituted an unacceptable conflict of interest. This last issue caused the so-called Klimt-Gruppe to sever its ties with the Secession in 1905.
After the Secession split, Klimt’s sole significant organizational affiliation was with the Wiener Werkstätte. For the most part, he retreated into the private sphere, seeking support from sympathetic patrons. Although he still believed that the creation of grand allegorical canvases was the highest goal of art, the majority of his later paintings are either landscapes (mostly done while on vacation on the Attersee near Salzburg) or portraits of society women. On two occasions, however, Klimt reverted to his former leadership role within the Viennese artistic community: he was a key collaborator in the organization of the 1908 and 1909 “Kunstschauen” (Art Shows), the last large-scale gatherings of cutting-edge domestic and foreign art held in Vienna before World War I. Klimt was known as a tireless champion and advocate of younger artists–most notably Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele–through both the Kunstschauen and personal contacts. Klimt’s premature death in 1918, from pneumonia following a stroke, was mourned by the entire Austrian art world.