Celebrated as the greatest genius of his time, Gustav Klimt’s richly patterned landscapes, erotic portraits and allegorical compositions marked him out as a leader of Vienna modernism. Although his landscapes and decorative schemes were highly acclaimed, his best known works are those depicting the female form, the concept of Woman in all her various guises.
Richard Muter, in a newspaper review of 1909, claimed that “The new Viennese woman, a specific sort of new Viennese woman – their grandmothers were Judith and Salome – has been invented or discovered by Klimt. She is delightfully vicious, charmingly sinful, fascinatingly perverse.”
Little is known about the man behind the paintings, and even less about the women who posed for them. However, Klimt is thought to have had relationships with many of his models and fathered several children.
According to contemporary descriptions, Klimt’s studios were filled with mysterious female beings, who, while he worked, wandered up and down, lolling about and relaxing. They were always ready at the merest sign from the master to freeze if he spotted a pose or movement that captured his imagination.
Remigus Geyling’s watercolour Klimt Transferring the Sketch for his Faculty Painting, “Philosophy” shows Klimt sitting on a framework wearing one of his smocks while a model adoringly passes him a tray of wine, chocolate cake and fruit. Although there may be elements of caricature in the painting, it seems in keeping with anecdotal evidence.
Women occupied the studio in without speaking; Klimt worked in complete silence and detested interruption. At every hour though, he would take a break to chat to his models, retiring to adjacent rooms to relax with them. Many of the models performed sexual acts in front of Klimt and posed in heterosexual and lesbian love scenes. They themselves became controversial figures in Viennese society.
The names of the models are largely unknown, partly because Klimt’s long-standing companion Emilie Flöge burnt many of his letters after his death. One though has recently been identified as Hilde Roth, a beautiful Bohemian redhead from Budapest whose face can be seen Lady with Hat and feather Boa (c1910)
Another was Mizzi Zimmerman, Klimt’s model as well as lover, who gave birth to their first child in 1899. His second child by Mizzi Zimmermann died suddenly aged one. This death is thought to have been the inspiration behind his painting, Hope. A pregnant woman gazes out at the viewer, while in the background are female figures representing sickness, madness and death.
Klimt recreated his models with majesty, retaining the academic realism of his earlier work for the face and figure of the subject while surrounding them in exuberant decoration, influenced by the Byzantine mosaics, Celtic design, and the Oriental textiles and ceramics that filled his studio. The effect is sumptuous, sensual, near-abstract but not too dauntingly avant-garde.
Over four thousand of Klimt’s drawings of women have been preserved. These probably represent only a fraction of those he created during his lifetime. Klimt painted women in all their forms: mythological figures, high-society Viennese ladies, allegories of life, madness and death, aggressive,femme fatales, objects of desire. Although he was a dazzlingly original landscape painter and creator of extravagant decorative schemes, he is best known as a painter of beautiful women.