Gustav Klimt was born on July 14, 1862 in the outskirts of Vienna. His father was a gold engraver and his mother an unsuccessful musical performer. The Klimt family lived in poverty and moved frequently. Gustav and two of his brothers showed promising artistic abilities and in 1876, at age 14, Gustav applied for the Kunstgewerbeschule (the Viennese School of Applied Arts) to be a drawing teacher. The following year, his brother Ernst joined him at art school. After graduating from the Kunstgewerbeschule in 1883, Gustav Klimt took his intensive training and practice with the classical style and opened an independent studio with his brother and another painter, Franz Matsch. His early works reflect the classical academic style of the late 19th Century and his training in architectural painting, featuring mastery of figures, as can be seen in his murals for the Vienna Burgtheater and the staircases of the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
By the end of 1892, Gustav’s father and brother Ernst had both died. These deaths profoundly impacted Klimt, who was now financially responsible for his remaining family. During this time, he grew close to his brother’s widow and her sister - Helene and Emilie Flöge. Emilie was an important model for his portrait work. His pace of work slowed considerably, and Klimt began questioning academic painting. He accepted further public commissions, but due to controversy around vague subject matter and nudity perceived as eroticism, these paintings were never installed and Klimt vowed to never accept another public commission.
From 1897, Klimt grew into his mature art style and he founded the Vienna Sezession - a group of painters who went against academic art, favoring a decorative style and art nouveau. They aimed to provide exhibitions for unconventional young artists and bring foreign works to Vienna, but the group had no specific style. In 1902, the 14th exhibition of the Secessionists was held in honor of composer Beethoven, for which Klimt painted his famous Beethoven Frieze, which made no explicit reference to any of Beethoven’s compositions, but was a complex ornate allegory of the artist as God.
In 1905, Klimt resigned from the Secessionists. His so-called “Golden Period” had begun not long before that, where figures in his works took on an icon status and the use of gold leaf is a fixture. Subjects of his work were often women - the femme fatale Throughout the late 1890s, Klimt also frequently visited the Flöge family home on the Attersee, where he painted many landscapes. Though they were often flattened to a single plane, design and pattern ruled in these works. His relationship with Emilie Flöge lasted many years, until the end of his life, and though romantic it was likely to have been platonic rather than sexual. Klimt kept his social life very quiet, but had many lovers and fathered 14 children.
In his final years, Klimt did away with his golden era, and ornamentation in general, opting instead for more subtle mixtures of color. He also created a large number of drawings, hearkening to his first artistic endeavours. Klimt’s works often have erotic undertones, and he maintained an active affair with his two loves throughout his life: women and painting. In January 1918, a stroke left Klimt paralyzed on his right side. Bedridden and no longer able to paint, he succumbed to influenza and died a month later.