Loan of two Klimt paintings offer an unprecedented opportunity for visitors to the National Gallery of Canada

The work of renowned Austrian artist Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) ranges from enigmatic to erotic, pastoral to provocative, contemplative to controversial. Visitors to the National Gallery of Canada will now be able to experience that artistic range more fully. The Gallery, which owns Klimt’s Hope I (1903), has received a long term loan of two important Klimt paintings.

“It is an exciting loan of works by an exciting artist,” says Dr. Colin Bailey, director of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, noted art scholar and former deputy director and chief curator at the National Gallery. “The National Gallery already has one of Klimt’s greatest history paintings, Hope I (1903), which has always been an iconic work. To be able to put other Klimt works around it is quite extraordinary.”

Hope I (1903) — the only Klimt painting in a Canadian public collection — will be joined at the Gallery by two more of his works: Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer (1914–1916) and Forest Slope in Unterach on the Attersee (1916).

Gustav Klimt, Hope I, 1903, oil on canvas, 189.2 x 67 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

 

“To have a concentration of three Klimt paintings in one room is remarkable anywhere, let alone in Canada,” says Kirsten Appleyard, NGC Curatorial Assistant and Provenance Researcher, European and American Art. “These three will illustrate his career exceptionally well: a portrait, an allegory and a landscape, these paintings provide a survey of the artist’s work spanning two decades of his career.”

In 2001, the Gallery presented the first comprehensive retrospective of Klimt’s work in North America, which was curated by Dr. Bailey. Recognized as the most renowned artist of the fin-de-siècle Art Nouveau movement known as the Vienna Secession, Klimt is considered one of the greatest painters of the twentieth century.

Klimt is, perhaps, most celebrated for his commanding portraits of women, including Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer. Commissioned in 1914 and completed nearly three years later, the painting portrays the youthful, elegant and self-assured daughter of one of Klimt’s most important patrons. But Dr. Bailey says Klimt’s unique skill lies in always revealing something of the person hidden beneath the trappings of wealth.

Gustav Klimt, Austrian, 1862–1918, Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer 1914–16, oil on canvas. Private collection.

 

“They’re prominent, they’re from well-to-do families, they have been extremely well educated, but there’s a sort of vulnerability about them, which he captures along with their refinement, their status,” Bailey says. “There is something shocking in the way Klimt passes through into their innermost selves.”

Klimt was also notoriously meticulous in his practice and was known for labouring over his portraits, Appleyard says.

“Elizabeth Lederer tells a story of Klimt spending months making drawings in different positions, regularly throwing his pencil down in frustration.  In the course of three years he changed his concept over and over again. He would have changed it again if her mother hadn’t forcibly packed up the picture one day and taken it away,” she says. “There are accounts of this happening with several other portraits. The sitters would have to physically take the work because Klimt routinely refused to consider his pictures finished.”

Gustav Klimt, Austrian, 1862–1918, Forest Slope in Unterach on the Attersee 1916, oil on canvas. Private collection.

 

His landscapes reflect a different side of the artist and his oeuvre.

“Klimt’s life was characterized by a certain bipolarity,” Appleyard says. “On the one hand, his public role in Vienna, hobnobbing with socialites and wealthy patrons, and on the other hand, his increasing need for seclusion and privacy, retreating to the countryside every summer to relax and paint. Klimt’s lush and poetic landscapes, while less well-known than his portraits, comprise almost one half of his oeuvre in the last two decades of his life.”

Klimt was admired for his use of colour, mosaic, decoration and ornament. But he also drew criticism for a smoldering sexuality — either latent or overt — in much of his work. 

“It’s a very heightened feeling of dream state,” Dr. Bailey notes. “He’s a symbolist artist who was working at the beginning of the twentieth century, when he’s not an abstract artist yet, but he gives vision to fantasies, yearnings and feelings that are sexual, erotic, philosophical.”

Hope I (1903), Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer (1914–1916) and Forest Slope in Unterach on the Attersee (1917) are on view at the National Gallery of Canada in room C215. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page.

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