"Whoever wants to know something about me must observe my paintings carefully and try to see in them what I am."
Gustav Klimt explored the themes of beauty, eroticism, life and death through his subjects, embellishing them with richly patterned surfaces. Although he is best known for his paintings, however he also produced thousands of drawings. Public commissions were the basis of his early success, but he later broke with traditional Viennese art society and formed the Vienna Secession, promoting the advancement and exposure of modern art in Austria.
At 14 years of age in 1876, Klimt received a scholarship to the School of Applied Arts in Vienna where he studied drawing and decorative painting until 1883. His younger brother Ernst joined him there in 1877. The two brothers and fellow classmate Franz Matsch formed a partnership to work on public commissions in 1883, carrying out numerous decorative commissions, including paintings for the Burgtheater and Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna.
During the period when Klimt became interested in Symbolism and Art Nouveau, he and 15 others resigned from the Viennese Artist's Association and founded the Vienna Secession (1897). Klimt was elected president and the group secured its own exhibition space and published an illustrated magazine.
He was commissioned to paint three allegorical panels representing Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence for the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna in 1894. Over the course of 10 years the project he met criticism and protest from the public, members of parliament and press for what were deemed to be erotic and ugly images. Meanwhile, he was awarded a gold medal for Philosophy when it was exhibited at the Universal Exposition in Paris.
Klimt's Hope I (1903), in the National Gallery of Canada collection, depicts a pregnant woman, standing nude in profile. Behind her are despairing figures and a skull suggesting death. There are small decorative features throughout the work, including flowers in the woman's hair and specks of gold and linear designs in the background. The piece was intended for display at the retrospective of his work at the 18th Exhibition of the Secession in 1903. However, he withdrew it, due to impending controversy over its explicit representation.
During the First World War Klimt was no longer taking public commissions, and worked on portraits for private patrons of the Vienna elite. He also continued to produce landscapes, which he had begun at the time of the founding of the Secession and his interest in modernism. Klimt worked until his death shortly after a stroke, in 1918.