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The Decorative Art of Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt is perhaps best known for his painting, The Kiss, which he created in 1908 at the height of the Art Nouveau movement. Prints of The Kiss are still popular today and his original paintings have fetched the highest prices ever recorded.

Gustav Klimt was born in Vienna in 1862, the son of an engraver who worked in gold and silver. At the age of 14, Klimt received a scholarship to the Vienna School of Applied Arts. His brother, Ernst, joined him two years later. There, the brothers received a formal education in the classical style. But instead of becoming an engraver like his father, Klimt opened an art studio with his brother and a fellow student, Franz Matsch, after his studies were completed. The focus of the studio was decorative mural painting.

The trio was quite successful from the start, receiving commissions from both public and private institutions and in particular, theaters. Klimt achieved a good measure of fame for his classical murals and was awarded the Emperorís Prize for his decoration of the Old Burgtheater. He also became a sought after portraitist. It would seem that Klimt was set for life as a classical painter.

But within a number of years, the trio began to dissolve. Ernst died shortly after his fatherís death and Matsch branched out more heavily into portraiture. Upset by his fatherís and brotherís deaths, Gustav withdrew into himself and began experimenting with his own art. He studied contemporary as well as historical styles and his own style began to evolve. Eventually Gustav Klimtís art evolved to a point at which he and Matsch had difficulty completing murals together because of their dissimilar styles.

Around the turn of the century, Klimt began to turn to a radical new style that was in opposition to formal Austrian art of the times. The elegant new style was called Art Nouveau and it was characterized by stylized flowing designs that were often floral in nature. Klimt, along with a number of other prominent Austrian painters, resigned from the Academy of Arts to which they had belonged and founded the Sucession. Klimt himself was elected president of the group which held art exhibitions and published a newspaper. The Secessionists held their first exhibition in 1898 and it was a largely a success. As a result, Klimt and the other artists found patrons to support their experimentation into this new art style.

Klimt continued to paint classical subjects but with a different interpretation that often involved female nudes in provocative poses. He also began to design fabrics and jewelry. Traveling to Italy, he became intrigued with the mosaics he saw there. It is thought that the mosaics and his fatherís work as an engraver of gold influenced Klimt and resulted in his inclusion of gold leaf in his paintings such as The Kiss. At around this time, Klimt entered what is known as his ďGolden Phase.Ē By 1905, Klimtís art had become too radical for even the Sucession and he broke away from the group.

Working independently, Klimt was quite successful and he continued to evolve as a painter. Although his work was controversial for the times, it was generally well-received. In 1911, Klimtís received first prize in the world exhibition in Rome for his painting Death and Life. After his Golden Phase, the use of soft colors dominated his work, although much of his subject matter remained unchanged.

Klimtís most common subject was the femme fatale who was often shown in a provocative pose. Other themes centered about sexuality, regeneration, love, and death. His work was heavily ornamental and often included references to Egyptian, Greek and Byzantine as well as Asian art.

Klimt continued to paint into his 50s and was greatly affected by his motherís death after which he began to paint in more somber colors. The artist died at the age of fifty-six of a cerebral hemorrhage.

To see an online gallery of the works of Gustav Klimt, please click here.

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Diana Blake is a professional artist and art history enthusiast. Her fascination with art history began when she encountered European art firsthand during several trips abroad as a young adult. As she began to compose a portfolio for her own art career, she called upon what she had seen in Europe and extended her knowledge to other styles of art through profuse reading and exhaustive research. As a result, Diana has written more than one hundred articles in which she delves into a variety of art history topics and she has compiled a list of links that she believes to be invaluable for art history enthusiasts. In addition, she also reviews books and movies on the topic of art history and has assembled an extensive list of online stores that sell books, movies and gift items related to art history.
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