Developments in the 19th Century


Art Styles in 19th century - Art Map


Gustav Klimt





Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was a refined and enigmatic portraitist, a sensitive painter of landscapes, and a skilled draughtsman of sensual and delicate female nudes. In his paintings and mural cycles, he combined the intrinsic and the abstract, illusion and decoration, and maintained a harmony between the subject and the ornamentation. In this way, he incorporated the sublimity that was characteristic of the artistic experience at the end of the 19th century. The son of a goldsmith, he acquired a good reputation in the traditional Viennese art world with his large allegorical paintings in the Burgtheater and Kunsthistorisches Museum. However, at the dawn of the new century, his designs for the ceiling of the Great Hall of Vienna University disappointed the commissioning authority. Instead of exalting positively the values of science and reason as purveyors of truth, his concept was a comment on the decadence of contemporary society. The portrayal was judged to be too crude, merciless, and erotic. It was his subject matter - nude, elderly, and obese men and women, all drawn by an invisible force -that upset the authorities rather than his use of the Modern Style. The layout was asymmetrical, the technique was strongly two-dimensional, and the outlines were clear and sumptuously curvilinear -a style that Klimt initiated with other Viennese artists as members of the Secession from 1897.
Between 1900 and 1903, Klimt's style developed the characteristics that would make him the chief exponent of the Jugenclstil. He constructed images with mosaic patterns of arabesque colours and designs, which, with their lack of depth, recalled Byzantine arts, while also containing a heavy element of Symbolist abstraction. Two important mural cycles exemplify this technique and represent the perfect synthesis of the sensitive use of space: the first, the Beethoven Frieze for the Secession exhibition of 1902, was planned by Hoffmann as an expression of the synthesis of all the arts. The second was the mosaic for the dining room in the Palais Stoclet in Brussels (1905-6), where the abstract figure barely emerges out of the profusion of decoration created with a variety of sparkling precious materials. From this moment onwards, until the end of World War I, Klimt continued to develop his style by placing great emphasis on abstraction and stylization. He was to become the leading artist of an alternative version to avant-garde abstract art, which had emerged from the same central European culture in the same period.

Gustav Klimt took courses at the School of Decorative Arts in Vienna and began work as a painter and decorator of public buildings, together with his brother and other artists. The style they followed was an international form of Symbolism. In 1897, he was the leading figure in the foundation of the Viennese Secession, and after a few years he had become the best representative of the Modern style. In his last years, he showed an appreciation of the avant-garde tendencies of the Expressionists. His extraordinary talent ensured the success of work that contained various expressive materials in one composition, recalling Gothic and Byzantine traditions while also anticipating the multimedia art of the 20th century.





Vienna between Reality and Illusion


Gustav Klimt

It was not long before the three friends were receiving commissions for portraits, and in this way Klimt began to establish himself. The portraits were painted from photographs, a process which met with great approval. A certain photographic precision in the portrayal of faces was to remain characteristic of Klimt. The Portrait of Joseph Pembauer, the Pianist and Piano Teacher is typical of these photographic portraits, with features bordering on the hyperreal. Yet Klimt also wanted to introduce his recently acquired familiarity with classical Antiquity into the picture, filling the wide frame with classical elements, such as the Delphic oracle, which seem to provide a commentary on the portrait. The frame becomes part of the picture, and has both decorative and symbolic significance. The excess of decor also serves to heighten by contrast the face or figure in the centre of the painting.


Portrait of Joseph Pembauer, the Pianist and Piano Teacher

This portrait is an instance of Klimt's photographic manner of painting faces during this period -
a hyperrealist before his time.


Portrait of a Lady

Coolness and reserve mark this lady, while not yet a femme fatale, as one of Freud's castrating women.




Old Woman




Woman with a Cape and a Hat




Portrait of Emile Floge




From the beginning Klimt dared to cross the hypocritical boundaries of respectability set by Viennese society. The eleven allegorical paintings undertaken for the Kunsthistorisches Museum were supposed to include a figure representing classical Greece, but in the Girl from Tanagra one cannot help recognising a Viennese cocotte, heavy lidded and made up like a "girl of easy virtue" - Klimt's contemporary. In spite of the Greek amphora behind her, giving an emphatically classical setting, this is Klimt's first femme fatale, and respectable society took exception to her. Again, and in spite of the classical vocabulary and allusions to Antiquity, the personifications in Sculpture, Tragedy, Music I and Music II are thoroughly Viennese, with their bouffant hair-styles and languid demi-monde air...
In Plato's "Symposium" one encounters two types of Venus, the celestial and the vulgar. Renoir makes the same distinction: "Naked woman rises either from the sea or from bed; she is called Venus or Nini, there is no better name for her..." The academic, idealised nude is applauded by society, particularly when a historical message can be discerned, but an everyday naked woman ready for love causes a scandal. Before Klimt, Edouard Manet's Olympia had aroused hatred and criticism. She likewise was a Nini - like the courtesan on the next street corner - rather than a Venus in the style of Titian's idealised mistresses, disguised as mythical goddesses. Neither in Manet's Paris nor in Klimt's Vienna was it permissible for such idols to be drawn from life.


Girl from Tanagra

By presenting ancient Greece in the charming contemporary form of a heavy-lidded Viennese cocotte, Klimt shows that he is beginning to distance himself from Academicism, and to challenge the hypocritically respectable pretensions of his age. In fact, he is trying his hand for the first time at a portrait of a "femme fatale"...


Finished drawing for the allegory Sculpture, 1896

The figures exemplifying the sculptor's art in every age are rigid; they see nothing. Yet the personification of "Sculpture" herself springs directly from life, and her living eyes gaze seductively at the beholder. This closeness to life was to become one of the most distinctive qualities of Klimt's art.


Finished drawing for the allegory Tragedy, 1897

Although Klimt's task was to depict the whole history of art on the walls of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, he could not resist the temptation to present his female figures as denizens of the Viennese demi-monde.



"His manner of painting was baroque, but the resuit was Greek''. Coined with regard to Franz von Stuck, this witty saying characterises Klimt as well, whose vocabulary teems with classical allusions; yet it is in bringing figures to life that his great art lies.


Music I




Josef Lewinsky


Poster for the I. Secession exhibition

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