Klimt + Gold = The Belvedere — 4th Greatest Museum in Vienna

The Belvedere is a building complex in Vienna where two palaces were built in the early eighteenth century and set inside a Baroque park landscape for use as a purely ceremonial summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663–1736). The Upper Belvedere palace, built between 1717 and 1723, today houses The Belvedere museum — the most visited art museum in Austria — best known for important paintings by Gustav Klimt.

The Belvedere owns the most comprehensive collection of works by Ferdinand Waldmüller (1793 — 1865), as well as fine examples of Austrian modernism by Kokoschka and Schiele, and masterpieces by international artists such as Böcklin, Rodin, Monet, Munch and van Gogh. Fine paintings by Gustav Klimt (1862 — 1918), nevertheless, provide the main attraction here!

Portrait of Sonja Knips by Klimt

Portrait of Sonja Knips, 1897

Though Klimt did paint male figures in his early creative period, his Portrait of Sonja Knips (above) — commissioned when the artist was 35-years-old — was in many respects his breakthrough painting. It represented a departure from his academic background and work as a muralist, and from the glamorous theatre world where Klimt first made a name for himself. In economic terms, Sonja’s portrait should be viewed as Klimt’s first significant entry into the Viennese social stratum, which nurtured the rise of the art movement to become known as the Vienna Secession (and, later, the Wiener Werkstätte).

Sonja’s portrait bears several clear influences of James McNeill Whistler, the American painter whose reproductions were likely known to Klimt. The square format of the Knips portrait, featuring the triangular semi-profile pose of the sitter, presaged the compositional devices (such as the pictorial tension between the floral arrangement in the striking background behind Sonja and her suffocating, high collar) that Klimt would successfully exploit in the long series of portraits depicting society ladies that would follow — leading up to the stylized work of the Gold Period, the centerpiece of Klimt’s international renown.

After Sonja, Klimt would almost exclusively paint women.

Portrait of Fritza Riedler, 1906 by Gustav Klimt
Portrait of Fritza Riedler, 1906 by Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt and the Vienna Secession

In 1897, a group of Austrian visual artists, designers, sculptors and architects, including the painters Koloman Moser and Gustav Klimt, resigned from the Association of Austrian Artists to protest its preference for traditional styles of art. They formed the Vienna Secession, an art movement related rather closely to Art Nouveau, and published an influential magazine of graphic art called “Ver Sacrum” (from the Latin for “Sacred Spring”). The group’s most influential architectural work is the Secession Building in Vienna (pictured below), designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich as a setting for the artists’ exhibitions.

The Golden Period of Gustav Klimt: 1898 — 1909

Your chief reason for visiting The Belvedere museum may perhaps be to see some of the highlights of the Secessionist Movement, most notably “The Kiss” (below) when Klimt began incorporating gold leaf into his iconic paintings.

The Kiss, 1907-08 by Gustav Klimt
The Kiss, 1907-08 by Gustav Klimt

At The Belvedere museum you can also see the equally impressive (though less glittery) “Portrait of Fritza Riedler” (below, right) painted by Klimt in 1906 — and you should notice that the decorative semicircular shape on the wall behind Fritza’s head signifies (in our opinion) Gustav Klimt’s homage to Diego Velázquez and the Spanish Golden Age.

Discover the Beauty of Klimt in His Details & Interrelationship with Others

Judith by Klimpt
Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1901 by Gustav Klimt

The Belvedere also owns Klimt’s first painting of Judith, the heroine from the Bible who seduced (and decapitated) the Assyrian General Holofernes to save her home city from destruction. Traditional renderings (by Caravaggio and many other artists) of the biblical theme of Judith depict a virtuous, courageous woman holding a sword bloodied from the violent act. In “Judith with the Head of Holofernes” (above) Klimt ignored art history and focused almost exclusively on Judith as a femme fatale, to the point where the severed head is incidental, literally cut off by Klimt at the right margin. One will notice that the sword and blood were excluded by Klimt, who instead placed emphasis on the torso and facial expression, implying that Judith used other means such as her voluptuousness and sensual magnetism to bewitch and destroy the General. As a model for “Judith” Klimt used his friend, the Viennese socialite Adele Bloch-Bauer, and we believe he drew inspiration from an earlier painting by Franz von Stuck (below).

The Sin, 1893 by the German Symbolist artist Franz von Stuck (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin)

Through March 27, 2022, the portrait of Judith from The Belvedere may be viewed at the Palazzo Braschi in Rome as part of the exhibition “The Secession and Italy.”

Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” {also called “The Woman (or Lady) in Gold”} was exhibited at The Belvedere from the end of World War II until 2006, when it was returned to Adele’s niece, then sold for the then-record price of $135 million, and finally placed on permanent display in New York’s Neue Galerie.

Even though some of Klimt’s best-known paintings are not always on view at The Belvedere, you should still come to the Upper Belvedere palace for up-close enjoyment of the many beautiful details to be found in Klimt’s paintings.

Klimt’s father was an engraver who worked in silver and gold. Klimt followed in his father’s footsteps and enrolled in Vienna’s School of Applied Arts where he studied varied subjects from fresco painting to mosaics.

The Kiss, detail, Klimt

While Klimt’s murals, decorative commissions and ceiling paintings in public buildings were praised as lavish and his nudes enticing, some critics in his day labeled them scandalous and “pornographic” (by today’s standards, some might say “misogynistic”). After one public outcry in the 1890s, the University of Vienna refused to display three paintings they commissioned from Klimt, prompting the artist to declare, “Enough of censorship.” Klimt would never again accept a public commission, stating, “I want to get away…. I refuse every form of support from the state, I’ll do without all of it.” Soon after, Klimt traveled to Ravenna to admire the gilded Byzantine mosaics.

Flowering Poppies, 1907 by Gustav Klimt
Flowering Poppies, 1907 by Gustav Klimt

Klimt Combined Realism, Art Nouveau & Modernism

Following his Golden Period, landscape painting offered Klimt different opportunities. He could take slightly more control of his body of work by avoiding commissions; escape to the countryside and occasionally travel outside Austria; and enjoy time away from Vienna with Emilie Louise Flöge, his life companion (and muse), and her family.

On Lake Attersee, 1900 by Gustav Klimt (Leopold Museum, Vienna)
On Lake Attersee, 1900 by Gustav Klimt (Leopold Museum, Vienna)

Klimt met Emilie Flöge around 1891, when his brother married into the Flöge family. Thereafter, Klimt used Emilie as a model for many of his works and was a frequent guest of her parents, spending summers together at Lake Attersee.

Creating landscapes constituted the only genre (aside from painting figures) that seriously interested Klimt. His interest in escaping to the mountains and lakes, and the modern paintings he created there (featuring atmospheric, flattened compositions devoid of people in an unusual square format, cropped like photographs), underscore Klimt’s connection to the natural world and his concern for humankind’s treatment of nature during the Second Industrial Revolution.

Schloss Kammer on Lake Attersee III, 1909-10 by Gustav Klimt
Schloss Kammer on Lake Attersee III, 1909-10 by Gustav Klimt

Landscape painting was also a passion Klimt shared with Egon Schiele (1890 — 1918). In 1907, the 17-year-old Schiele introduced himself to the famed Klimt.

Klimt bought drawings from Schiele, and connected the young artist with patrons. They took a keen interest in each other’s output, developed a friendship, and would spend time together in their studios often studying the other’s unfinished landscapes.

Klimt The Kiss

“The Kiss” & the Permanent Collection

It is believed that Klimt’s 1907-08 oil on canvas entitled “The Kiss” is a depiction of Klimt himself and Emilie Flöge as lovers. It is possible they were solely life-long friends, not sexual partners.

Klimt was known to be very active sexually, although he never married. He spoke and wrote very little about his private life, kept his affairs discreet, and avoided public scandal. Klimt is said to have fathered 14 children.

Sea Idyll, 1887 by Arnold Böcklin

Symbolist Painters

Today, Gustav Klimt is best known as an Austrian Symbolist and the most prominent painter within the Vienna Secession movement. The symbols used by such artists contain references that are private and intensely personal (representing a departure from realism and traditional iconography). Painters associated with Symbolism employ mythological or dream imagery to convey hidden meanings. They believe art should represent absolute truths which can only be described “indirectly” — a symbolist painting may therefore look realistic, however, in actuality the painting represents a non-visual idea.

European artists in The Belvedere’s collection who embraced Symbolism before Klimt include Arnold Böcklin and Fernand Khnopff. “Still Water” (below) by Khnopff was painted in 1894.

The collection of art housed in the Upper Belvedere includes paintings by Segantini, Hodler, Koller-Pinell and Munch (above, left to right) and Rodin’s 1909 bust of Gustav Mahler.

Other holdings by international artists include “Orpheus and Eurydice” (below left) from 1869 by Anselm Feuerbach and Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s “Early Spring” (below right) circa 1900.

Highlights at The Belvedere Include Portraits by Makart

There is no doubt that Hans Makart (1840 — 1884) was idolized by Klimt; in fact Klimt spoke of his admiration for Makart’s “lavish Baroque design.” Makart’s training was entirely academic and all Germanic art of that period was under the rule of Classicism. Makart, however, possessed a sensual, passionate love of color. Forced to leave the rigid Vienna Academy, Makart relocated to Munich, where he developed his own style: large-scale history paintings where the importance of decorative qualities (brilliant colors, fluid forms) prevailed. Makart would return triumphantly to Vienna, where in the 1870s he was the acknowledged leader of the city’s artistic life, achieving cult-like adulation for moving the decorative, dramatic and sexually symbolic aspects of art to the forefront.

Charlotte Wolter as “Messalina”, 1875 by Hans Makart (Leopold Museum, Vienna)

Klimt, Schiele & van Gogh

Research has been conducted in recent years to learn which leading international painters and sculptors influenced the artistic development of Gustav Klimt.

A collaborative exhibition exploring specific works of art that verifiably inspired Klimt’s creativity is expected to open later in 2022 at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

It is well-known, for example, that Schiele was invited by Klimt to participate in a 1909 exhibit at the Vienna Kunstschau, where Schiele encountered paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Jan Toorop, Edvard Munch and other painters for the first time. As a result, Schiele painted tributes to van Gogh’s Sunflowers.

Schiele’s late work turned darker — delving deeper into human emotions and psychology, revealing a marked distance from his earlier art nouveau-inspired aesthetic and Klimt’s decorative influence.

The Plain of Auvers, 1890 by Vincent van Gogh

In 2023, over 90 paintings from the Amsterdam exhibition will travel to the Lower Belvedere for the opening of a show entitled “Klimt. Inspired by van Gogh, Rodin, Matisse…”

We look forward to learning the results of the research conducted by these two institutions, answering questions such as “Did Gustav Klimt ever see a work of art created by Henri Matisse, and how familiar was Klimt with van Gogh?”.

This 2023 show will include works of art by James McNeill Whistler, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Claude Monet, Jan Toorop, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh and other prominent artists. It is scheduled to open to the public in Vienna from January 27 — May 29, 2023. 

The Belvedere is the perfect place to begin your understanding of the body of work created by Egon Schiele and his mentor, Gustav Klimt. Schiele painted prolifically and participated in the Vienna Secession’s 49th exhibit (in 1918), which was an enormous success.

In 2011, one cityscape by Schiele sold for more than $40 million.

As a result of the 1918 influenza pandemic, Klimt experienced pneumonia and died from a stroke. “Emilie must come” were Klimt’s final words. Klimt left half of his estate to family members and the other half to Emilie.

Later, in the same year, Edith Schiele (the artist’s wife, who was six month’s pregnant) also perished from influenza; her baby did not survive. Three days later, Egon Schiele succumbed to the same viral infection. He was 28 years old.

Klimt’s body of work differed from the history paintings containing mythological subjects and classical themes of his predecessors because Klimt depicted his figures with human (not god-like) characteristics. His groundbreaking style injected sexuality and a uniquely expressive atmosphere into figurative painting. Egon Schiele remains a seminal artist in the development of Expressionism in painting.

“Lady with Fan — Gustav Klimt & East-Asia”

Lady with Fan -- Gustav Klimt

The Belvedere is also known for its first-rate temporary exhibitions. “Lady with Fan,” painted by Klimt in 1917-1918 just before his death, served as the centerpiece of a display exploring the inspiration Klimt found in art from China, Korea and Japan. This beautiful show closed on February 13, 2022. Influenced by Japanese prints (below), the painting “Lady with Fan” was on public view in Vienna just once before — over a century ago at the Kunstschau in 1920.

Waldmüller and Biedermeier Vienna

The exhibition “Better Times? Waldmüller and Biedermeier Vienna” was presented from May 12, 2021 through February 27, 2022 and included some of Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller’s most famous paintings, including “Early Spring in the Vienna Woods” (above) completed in 1861 and “On Corpus Christi Morning” (below) from 1857.

Even though Waldmüller studied portrait painting at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, creating a portrait of Beethoven in 1823, later he focused on landscapes because he believed the close study of nature should serve as the foundation of painting.

Waldmüller’s work on exhibit at The Belvedere included “View of the Dachstein from Ischl” (above left), “Trailing Grapes” (above right), “A Girl Adorning the Virgin Mary with a Rose” (below left) and “Roses in a Glass” (below right).

In 1819, Waldmüller became a Professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, where he wanted to introduce a focus on the study of nature into the curriculum. Such ideas were deemed incompatible with the ideals promulgated by the Academy and the Viennese establishment and, ultimately, Waldmüller was forced to resign. As a proponent of natural observation and plein-air painting — and a critic of academic painting — Waldmüller was indeed ahead of his time and became an inspiration for his contemporaries (whose paintings are pictured below) and an entire generation of artists.

The Grossglockner with the Pasterze Glacier, 1832 by Thomas Ender

On View Now: Special Exhibitions During 2022

Temporary exhibitions currently on view in the Lower Belvedere include “Dalí — Freud: An Obsession” (through May 29, 2022) and “Viva Venezia! The Invention of Venice in the 19th Century” (through September 4, 2022).

Upper Belvedere, where the Permanent Collection is displayed, as seen from the Lower Belvedere

The Upper & Lower Belvedere: Two Baroque Palaces

The Belvedere complex contains two Baroque palaces (the Upper and Lower Belvedere), Palace Stables and the Orangery. Set in a Baroque park landscape, the gardens descend on a gentle gradient and include fountains, sculptures and clipped hedging in the formal French manner.

Records indicate that the construction of the Lower Belvedere (below left) began in 1712 and was completed in 1723.

The good news for you is that we at ArtLoversTravel have profiled The Belvedere as the “4th Greatest” art museum in Vienna, and we hope you will choose to return here throughout 2022 to read new articles featuring our top 3 picks for the best art venues in Vienna.

Please feel free to leave a COMMENT, or tell us about your favorite museum experiences in the Austrian capital. Thank you for your visit!

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