Austrian painter Gustav Klimt is synonymous for his captivating oil portraits of women. He captured and embraced female sensuality and sexuality in a manner that no other artist has managed. The Kiss is his most well-known work, painted in his peak. Two figures are locked in an embrace, with their bodies intertwined. They rest on a bed of flowers, against a blanket of shimmering gold in the background. Both figures are intimately bound together in the same golden cloth, with recurring erotic motifs of simple geometric shapes.
The Kiss, 1907-08 © Österreichische Galerie Belvedere
Klimt’s work is most commonly associated with Symbolism. He took inspiration from the Romanticism of the Pre-Raphaelites, to the colours and realism of Fauvism. In the richly-decorated figures that is seen throughout Klimt’s canvases, he embeds allusions to the human psyche, with hidden messages of pleasure, human identity and suffering.
Women fascinated Klimt and he enjoyed painting them. He began with commissions from Viennese society belles, and over time, sought to express the beauty of human emotions through depictions of his muses, their personalities, and desires. His later portraits overflow with expression and decorative features, thus turning the anatomy of a muse into one of beautiful ornamentation. Klimt developed his own Art Nouveau style through motifs, mosaics, flowers, and oriental influences. He often thought of his muses as trapped fairies traversing their own dreams.
Portrait of Sonja Knips, 1989 © Estate of Gustav Klimt
Klimt was selective with the women he painted. They include Gertha Loew, Mäda Primavesi, Marie Henneberg, Sonja Knips, Emilie Flöge, Szerena Lederer, Elisabeth Lederer, and perhaps the most famous of all, Adele Bloch-Bauer.
Adele Bloch-Bauer was the only muse that Klimt painted more than once. She was the daughter of an influential Jewish banker, and married Ferdinand Bloch – a prominent Viennese businessman. Adele hosted weekly salons in her home in Vienna, where artists, writers, composers and actors convened. Klimt was inspired by her intellectual spirit, social power, and emancipating energy.
Adele was a key figure in fin-de-siècle Vienna, where roles of women were shifting. In the 1912 portrait, she is dressed in an uncorseted and flowing dress – worn by progressive women of the bourgeoisie. Klimt would use Adele’s image as a muse of his later biblical portraits – Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901) and Judith-II (Salome) (1909).
Szerena Lederer was one of Klimt’s most dedicated patrons, and known in Vienna for her ravishing beauty and style. Over 40 years, Szerena amassed the largest private collection of Klimt’s works in the world. Klimt painted three generations of women in the Lederer family: Szerena, her daughter, Elisabeth Lederer, and her mother, Charlotte Pulitzer.