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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Li

Gustav Klimt: The Painter of Women

Updated: Jun 10, 2022

By Susanna Partsch

Note: The paintings featured in this article contains nudity. Please be advised if you feel uncomfortable about this subject.

Figure 1: Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907, Gustav Klimt


Gustav Klimt (1862 - 1918) was an Austrian symbolist painter of the nineteenth century. His subjects are primarily female nudes, and he is known for his golden style and his painting The Kiss. He painted many women of different social statuses and backgrounds in his lifetime, and his relationships are very complex. He was the father of fourteen children, three of whom he recognized. This book is on his personal life and how it influenced his works. Klimt attended an art school now called the University of Applied Arts Vienna, where he studied architecture painting. In his early career, he had an academic style, like that in figure 2. He started experimenting with his prominent "Gold phase" in 1898, beginning with the piece Pallas Athena. This later style was marked by the use of gold leaf, decorative patterns, and a two-dimensional perspective(cover painting, figure 1).

An emphasis of this book is Klimt's life-long companion, Emilie Flöge (figure 3). She was the sister of the wife of Klimt's brother, Ernst Klimt. After Ernst's death in 1892, Gustav became a frequent visitor to the Flöge family house and spent much time with Emilie. In her life, Flöge and her sister ran a successful fashion salon called Schwestern Flöge (Flöge Sisters), which sold traditional styles of dresses to upper-class society ladies. She also designed many reform movement garments, which are clothing suited for practical usage for women. Klimt introduced many clients to the salon (as he was painting them at that time) and collaborated with her to create many revolutionary clothing. Although Flöge and Klimt were very close, she remained single and financially independent, respecting his career and artistic nature.

Figure 2: Portrait of Sonja Knips, 1898, Gustav Klimt

Figure 3: Photograph of Emile Flöge and Gustav Klimt

Further Exploration

Art Nouveau and the Vienna Secession:

Art Nouveau, or the Modern Style in English, is an international art movement that peaked from 1890 to 1910. This movement sought to blur the clear distinction between fine arts and applied arts. It is most commonly used in the realms of interior design, furniture, glass art, textiles, ceramics, jewelry, metalwork, and graphic arts. It is a resistance against academic art and was considerably inspired by natural shapes and forms. It also focused on asymmetry and movement, along with the usage of modern materials. The style was distributed all over Europe and took on a slight variation in each country. 

The Vienna Secession, which is closely related to the Art Nouveau, is founded by Austrian artists. They formed this movement to break away from traditional and restrictive styles. Their purpose, published in the first issue of their magazine Ver Sacrum (Latin for "Sacred Spring"), is not to combat works of the past, but to promote arts "against the peddlers who pose as artists and who have a commercial interest in not letting art bloom"(Bahr). Among the beginning fifty members, Klimt was elected the president of this movement. In 1902, Klimt's Beethoven Frieze (figure 4) was exhibited at the Secession building in honor of Ludwig van Beethoven. 

The Symbolism Art Movement:

Symbolism was a movement that began as the opposition to rationalism, the belief that everything should be analyzed with logic, and materialism, the idea that values physical substances over emotions. Its origin can be traced to Jean Moreas' Symbolist Manifesto, which states that every human, element, and object should be depicted as a symbol of a more profound idea or emotion. Symbolist paintings are characterized by unmodified colors, expressive brushstrokes, and abstract figures. Note that the symbolists were a diverse group of painters with a wide range of different styles and techniques. However, they all emphasized imagination over realistic depictions.

Figure 4: Beethoven Frieze, 1902, Gustav Klimt

*Beethoven Frieze is filled with symbolic meaning from Greek mythology. From left to right: the three Gordons of Disease, Madness, and Death, the Giant Typhoon, Lust, Unchastity, Excess, and Devouring Grief (cut off from this picture). 

Femme Fatale:

Femme fatale, the French phrase for fatal woman, is a mysterious and beautiful character that sets traps which often kills her lovers. This is a common theme among 19th-century paintings and continues to be featured in modern mediums. Klimt depicted femme fatale in many pieces, one of which is Judith (figure 5). The Book of Judith is a part of the Christian Old Testament Bible and is about a beautiful widow who is upset about her fellow Jewish countrymen's distrust in God to save them from their foreign conquers. Accompanied by a loyal maid, she went to the camp of the enemy general, Holofernes, and introduced herself as a prophetess. She promised him information on the Israelites and gained his trust. One night, Judith was invited to Holofernes' tent, and in his drunken state, she decapitated him and brought his head back to her people, saving Isreal.

Figure 5: Judith and the Head of Holofernes, 1901, Gustav Klimt

*In Klimt's painting, Judith is depicted as a charming woman holding Holofernes' head, which is in the bottom right corner. Unlike conventional representations of Judith being fierce and deadly, Klimt paints her as affectionate and gentle, as her hand rests softly in Holofernes' hair.

An interesting concept that I found during my research is the distinctions between Judith and Salome. Both of them are femme fatales, and both of their victims were decapitated, so it is often hard to differentiate them in paintings. Salome was a biblical character who requested and received the head of Saint John, who baptized Jesus. Judith is usually painted with a sword in hand and generally with a maid at her side, while Salome is usually painted with a platter that contains Saint John's head. Also, while the first represents courage and patriotism, the other represents bloodthirst and temptation. Figure 6 shows the two women both painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder, and the mentioned characteristics distinguish them. 

Figure 6: Judith with the head of Holofernes, 1530, Lucas Cranach the Elder (left) and Salome with the head of John the Baptist, 1526-1530, Lucas Cranach the Elder (right)


Although I expected more content on Klimt's techniques and artistic inspirations, I was not disappointed in this book. It provided a very in-depth description of Klimt's muses and fittingly used paintings to tell their stories. I especially like the photographs of Emilie Flöge and the postcards that Klimt wrote to her, as they provided a unique historical perspective. I would recommend this book to readers who have just encountered Klimt as it is brief overview of how the women in his life influenced his works.

Memorable Quotes and Excerpts

"After Klimt's death there was tacit agreement that he enjoyed relationships with his models, while maintaining platonic relationships with society ladies and with his companion, Emilie Flöge. She was portrayed as the self-sacrificing partner whose only desire was to marry Klimt: because she understood and profoundly respected his artistic nature, she looked on passively as he turned his attention to other women. When he suffered a stroke on 11 January 1918, Klimt is alleged to have stammered, 'Send for Emilie'"(Partsch 14).

*This quote undoubtedly demonstrates how Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt have a trusting and mutually respectful friendship. Being called to Klimt's deathbed shows how Flöge has shared a life with him while maintaining each other's freedom, which is truly admirable.

"Klimt produced paintings of woman as aggressive, as a femme fatale, and as an object of desire. In his portraits he deprived woman of her body and her intellect, and created enthroned Virgins"(Partsch 98).

*Although this sentence has a sexist connotation, I do not think the Klimt was trying to express such a message through his art. His works presented all kinds of women from various social classes; some represented authority and elegance, while others symbolized desire and beauty. 


In conclusion, this book was quite informative about Klimt's personal life and his works. It encouraged me to conduct more research about the ideas and art movements during that time, and I have certainly learned a great deal. During the summer of 2018, I visited the Neue Galerie in New York, where many of Klimt's most famous works are exhibited. After reading this book, I want to revisit the Neue Galerie when possible to see many details and context that I have missed.

Works Cited

"Art Nouveau." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 7 Aug. 2001, Accessed 6 July 2020.

"Book of Judith." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 4 Jan. 2004, Accessed 6 July 2020.

"Gustav Klimt." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 6 Aug. 2001, Accessed 6 July 2020.

McHugh, Catherine. "Maria Altmann: The Real Story Behind 'Woman in Gold'."Biography, 1 Apr. 2015, Accessed 6 July 2020.

Partsch, Susanna.Gustav Klimt: Painter of Women. Prestel Pub, 1994.

Scott, Dan. "Symbolism Art Movement." Draw Paint Academy, 12 Feb. 2020, Accessed 6 July 2020.

"Symbolism (arts)." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 29 Sept. 2002, Accessed 6 July 2020.

"Vienna Secession." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 15 Jan. 2005, Accessed 6 July 2020.

Zimoglyadov, Andrey. "A Good Question. Heads Up: How to Tell the Difference Between Judith and Salome?" Arthive, Accessed 6 July 2020.


The cover painting (figure 1), Adele Bloch-Bauer I, is now permanently exhibited at the Neue Galerie in New York City. It came to the United States because of an Austrian-American refugee, Maria Altmann, who was the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer. When Germany invaded Austria shortly before World War II, the painting was stolen by the Nazis from her family in Vienna. After the War, Altmann returned to Vienna to claim the painting, only to find that the Austrian government refused to return it. After a decade of negotiation, eventually taking the case to the Supreme Court of the United States, she reclaimed the portrait. It was sold in 2006 at the price of 135 million dollars, highest record at that time. This story was made into a film in 2015 called Woman in Gold.

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