Gustav Klimt and His Intellectual Patrons

Gustav Klimt and His Intellectual Patrons

Gustav Klimt, the Viennese Expressionist artist, was a central figure of the art and sociopolitical climate in Vienna, playing an extremely important role within the intellectual and cultural life at the end of the twentieth century. His most important contribution, perhaps, is his involvement in the Secession movement, which he founded in 1897. His pride in ruins after the rejection of his so-called subversive, depraved murals by the University in 1901 (as the conservative university faculty did not admire his Secessionist work), the artist turned to those also condemned by society; it was then that Klimt totally withdrew from the public Vienna art establishment and began to exclusively practice within the private realm of the city’s upper class. Klimt’s career as a portraitist was largely found among the Jewish elite, a people who were increasingly forced to societal margins, as extreme anti-Semitism had misshaped Viennese political culture. It is evident that, with the Secessionist movement, of which Klimt was its first president, came the artist’s role as a portraitist for people marginalized by society, as the artist found refuge for those who were unaccepted by the refined, conventional, and conservative norms of fin-de-siècle Vienna.

Indeed, Klimt’s investigation of the individual psyche and notion of pathos explored through portraiture was established by his drive to penetrate the façade of Viennese respectability and refinement, which he deplored. At this time, Vienna was considered “a battlefield of nationalistic chauvinisms, ethnic and social opposites, racism of all kinds and anti-Semitism.”[1] Although these factors led to cultural turmoil and social disintegration, they played a stimulating and vital part in the emergence of what was new in art, that being Klimt and the Art Nouveau Secessionists. Specifically vital, was Klimt’s role in the Viennese market place as portrait painter for a particular type of patron: elite, intellectual, always female, and frequently Jewish. For the purpose of this paper, detailed accounts will be utilized to demonstrate how and why Gustav Klimt’s prolific career as portraitist is undoubtedly indebted to his patronage. This will then lead to a more comprehensive study, focused on the patronage and portraits of members of the Primavesi family, specifically Mäda Primavesi, 1912.

Klimt reserved his most flattering style for these elite Viennese patrons: a new style, which was met with public acclaim. It is important to note that his style shifted after his murals were rejected; as such, before, his portraits are described as unthreatening, confining to the Viennese conservative public, and after the fact, his portraits are increasingly more subversive. Nevertheless, all of his portraits contain certain aesthetic aspects that appealed directly to the unconscious of the Viennese people; hence, Klimt’s pride was revived, as he became fashionable once again. This notion is evidenced by the fact that the nouveau riche men actually vied with one another in order to obtain a portrait of their wives signed by the famous master Klimt. Moreover, the wives of these men, most of whom were socialites, fantasized of being granted fame and immortality by Klimt’s hands.[2]

The artist’s immense appeal is demonstrated by the numerous portraits of wives or relatives of these nouveau riche patrons, such as (titles are also names of sitters): Sonja Knips, 1898, Gertha Felsöványi, 1902, Serena Pulitzer Lederer, 1899, Eugenia Primavesi, 1913-14, Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1907, Adele Bloch-Bauer II, 1912, Baroness Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt, 1914, Margarethe Stonborough- Wittgenstein, 1905, and Friederike Maria Beer, 1916. These portraits, and many others, heavily contributed to Klimt’s rise to fame. Embraced by the influential, enlightened Viennese public, his role as virtuosic portraitist was both reinforced and disseminated. For example, Serena Pulitzer Lederer, the portrait of the wife of Viennese industrialist August Lederer, was painted in 1899, two years after Klimt founded the Vienna Secession. This work was shown in the tenth Secession exhibition in 1901, which demonstrates how these portraits functioned within the Secession movement and within the patrons’ private homes. Klimt also painted Serena’s mother, Charlotte Pulitzer in 1915 and her daughter, Baroness Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt in 1914. In examination of these few works, it is apparent that Klimt knew how to appeal to the prosperous Jewish citizens of Vienna who, as illustrated by the patronage of the Lederer family, clearly supported the Secession. These women are painted in an extraordinarily charming manner yet manage to exude a touch of conceit.

In more general terms, the women depicted within of all Klimt’s portraits continue to have the same composed, dream-like quality, in which they look out from the painting with a sense of vulnerability and detachment, all seemingly waiting in anticipation. In that, these works break away from the historical style, and, instead, examine the crisis and inner turmoil of the individual to produce a subjective content that still relies upon reality. “Klimt’s ‘horror vacui’ is intensely concentrated in their monumental presence. His eclecticism allows him to draw now on Velasquez, now on Fernand Khnopff. From the one he takes the manner of the painting the bouffant hairstyle and the contours of the chin and from the other, certain characteristics of the femme fatale.”[3] We arrive at a true conflation of these characteristics in perhaps the most renowned patronage to date, that of the Bloch-Bauer’s and the quintessential Klimt portraiture of matriarch, Adele.

Ferdinand Bloch, a wealthy Viennese, Jewish industrialist, who made his fortune in the sugar industry, commissioned the portraits of wife, Adele Bloch-Bauer, entitled Adele Bloch-Bauer and Adele Bloch-Bauer II. Ferdinand sponsored the arts, favoring and supporting the career of Klimt. Perhaps Ferdinand’s admiration for Klimt stemmed from the way in which he painted women as goddess-like creatures, which in turn, would enhance the monumental dignity of their industrialist husbands. Indeed, the Bloch-Bauer’s patronage of Klimt is a testament to the artist as a fundamental forebear of Modernity in fin-de-siècle Vienna. In fact, Adele was the only model to be painted twice by the artist, the first portrait completed in 1907 and the second in 1912. Few paintings have captured the public's attention as thoroughly as these portraits of Adele. The suggestive, exotic, ornamented, gold-leafed paintings not only depict the subject’s beauty and sensuality, but also, functioned as a harbinger for both the impending Modernity in art and a culture intent on radically forming a new identity. With these paintings, Klimt created a “secular icon that would come to stand for the aspirations of a whole generation in fin-de-siècle Vienna.”[4] These works, undoubtedly, express the angst of the age, which attest to their immense popularity.

Klimt’s masterpiece maintains its historical and sociopolitical prestige today, as in 2006 it was purchased for the Neue Galerie in Manhattan by the cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder for $135 million, the highest sum ever paid for a painting.[5] This enormous feat for the artist provides an interesting transition for discussion of the Primavesi family and the results of their patronage. Klimt's stunning portrait, Eugenia Primavesi, 1913-14, was sold at Sotheby's for $3.85 million in 1987, a record at auction for a painting by the artist at that time.[6] Noting the large discrepancy in value of these works, while, of course taking into consideration the twenty-year gap between the sales, it is interesting to question if this result is at all a reflection on the object’s history and its patronage. Indeed, this is a topic for another paper, as it relies too heavily on theoretical methodology.

In examination of Klimt’s patronage, it is necessary to discuss the significant role of the Primavesi family as enlightened patrons of the artist. Otto Primavesi, banker and industrialist, deemed an enlightened patron and cash cow, was one of the financial backers of the Wiener Werkstätte, the Vienna Workshops. In 1915, Otto took over as chief financier and patron to revive the faltering enterprise.[7] At its inception, the institution was a production community of visual artists, rooted in the Arts and Crafts movement, that embraced Art Nouveau ideas while bringing together artists, architects, and designers committed to create art that was accessible to all people. At the workshops, these artistic figures turned artisans made everything by hand, introducing simplicity and functionality of design in architecture and the decorative arts. It was hoped that a great demand for these products would elevate moral principles and tastes and would lead to great profit to be split among all involved in the workshops. The institution was one, which rejected both historicism and the notion that making art should rely upon past styles. In that, they sought to create an innovative art that reflected a modernity specific to Vienna, not an art that could be deemed anachronistic.

Wiener Werkstätte, then, embodied the creed of the Secession movement, their new art and new style, “to every art its age, to every art its freedom.” The fact that Otto Primavesi was so strongly involved with this unfortunately faltering institution demonstrates his respect and support of the visual arts in Vienna. This coupled with Klimt’s famous portraits of the female members of the Primavesi family, clearly illustrates the close relationship the artist had with the family, and perhaps functions to shed light on all past notions of patronage specific to Klimt and his subjects.

In 1904, Eugenia Primavesi commissioned her portrait bust from sculptor Hanak. Although not yet in direct contact with Klimt, the date of 1904 marks the first link between several influential Viennese artists, including but not exclusive to Klimt, and two of their principal patrons, Otto and Eugenia. It is necessary to note that solely for the purpose of this paper, only Klimt’s role within the Primavesi patronage will be discussed. At the outset of World War I and in the years preceding it, Klimt's immense influence manifests itself in the commissioned portraits of Mäda and Eugenia Primavesi.

In 1913 - 1914, Klimt gained entree into the heart of the family circle and became a prominent figure day-in and day-out at their Winkelsdorf house. Their Winkelsdorf home was dedicated to the aesthetic of the Wiener Werkstätte in its copious display of patterns, folk art, primitivism, and Expressionism, however, there was no room to display Klimt’s paintings, which were hung at Olmütz and later in the Vienna apartment.[8] As the Primavesi family celebrated Christmas 1913 in Olmütz, Eugenia received a letter from Klimt on December 19th announcing the pending arrival of the painting of her child, Mäda. He wrote, “The frame comes this evening – the painting will not be ready until then either, unfortunately! As shipment by fast train now, during the holiday period, is very uncertain, early Monday I will dispatch the painting together with the frame… as personal baggage… I will cancel a ticket to Olmütz here [in Vienna], check the case as personal baggage, and send the receipt to your address by registered mail. In this way the painting can, as I understand it, be there in one day – travelling unaccompanied.”[9] The painted subject of this correspondence was never explicitly named, however, it is understood that the portrait was of Mäda, who began sitting for Klimt at the age of eight. Offering some further support for this speculation is that Mäda’s tenth birthday fell on Monday, December 22, 1913, a few days after this letter was received.

Klimt often sent his pictures to exhibitions immediately after he completed them. In fact, Mäda’s portrait, which was exhibited under alias title, Portrait of a Girl, was shown at the second international Secession exhibition in Rome at the Palazzo dell'Esposizione, "Seconda esposizione internazionale d'arte ‘della secessione’," from February to June 1914. The work was located in room four, and hung in the twelfth spot. Klimt also exhibited Mäda Primavesi and Adele Bloch-Bauer II at the Berlin Secession exhibition in 1916, called "Bundes österreichischer Künstler.” Thereafter, while deep within war, there were few exhibitions in continental Europe. Furthermore, none of Klimt’s portraits completed after Mäda Primavesi were publically displayed during his lifetime.

It is widely acknowledged that Klimt’s persona was that of the quintessential artist especially in his unwillingness to conform to a schedule, this often infuriated his patrons, particularly, Otto Primavesi. The women, who sat for the artist, infatuated with his talent, were fully compliant of the artist’s means in order to endure his long artistic process. Mäda, who was the only child to sit for Klimt for a commissioned portrait, was more reluctant to sit still during the artist’s long routine. Mäda was only eight years old at the time that Klimt accepted the commission; her impatience as a sitter is apparent, as the artist executed myriad sketches of the child, which still exist today. The painting was finally completed in 1912; the pencil sketches of Mäda reveal that as the composition evolved, the artist experimented with many different poses and background motifs.[10] The final painting is an expression of youth, in its use of imaginative animal imagery and floral patterns, which Klimt took directly from Mäda’s own sketchbook. Klimt, then, accommodated to his sitter, in that the scene is clearly an imaginary one, wherein Mäda is depicted as defiant and willful. This painting, in form and style, cannot be confused with the themes of inner turmoil and repressed sexuality as expressed by his portraits of adults, and more specifically those that implement gold leaf.

After the completion of Mäda Primavesi, Eugenia, Mäda’s mother, sat for Klimt in 1913. Interestingly, Klimt did not paint her as the matriarchic, domestic figure she actually was, instead, he painter her as a goddess-like, patroness of the arts. Through sketches, not nearly as numerous as those of her daughter, and through the final product, it is evident that Eugenia did not confine to the norm of Klimt’s other sitters. Unlike the majority of his female sitters, she was more than willing to wear a patterned robe for a formal portrait, testifying to her fascination both with Klimt and with the Wiener Werkstätte.[11] Her fascination did not end at the artist’s studio; in fact, she continued to wear this kind of patterned, robe-like garment at home or even while entertaining.

The Primavesi patronage of Klimt did not stop at the portraits of Mäda and Eugenia, the family continued to acquire works by the artist directly until his death in 1918 and indirectly thereafter. Some of their acquisitions include: Hope II of 1907-8, as a gift from Klimt; Litzlbergerkeller on the Attersee of 1916 purchased from the artist; The unfinished Blumenstück of 1917, the last purchase the Primavesis made directly from Klimt; Baby of 1917 joined the Primavesi collection several years after Klimt’s death. It is a safe assessment to conclude that Klimt’s maintenance of contact with Otto and Eugenia Primavesi served a great purpose during his lifetime and continued to facilitate his market thereafter. The patronage of the Primavesi family demonstrates a type of patron that both monetarily and emotionally supported and encouraged an artist’s career.

Klimt’s prolific and innovative life, as man and as artist, was a result of the social, cultural, and political forces that helped shape and support him. The magnitude of his patronage clearly explains the vital and stimulating role he played in contributing to fin-de-siècle Viennese society. Klimt’s patronage, even from a century ago, has continued to positively affect the art world today, as evidenced by the 2006 and 1987 sales of two of his renowned portraits of patrons, which were both painted in the beginning of the twentieth century. 

Works Cited

Baetjer, Katharine. “About Mäda,” Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 40, Essays in Memory of John M. Brealey (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY: 2005) 131-150.

Brockman, David Dean. "Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)," (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 2007) 19-32.

Crow, Thomas E. “Modern Art in the Common Culture,” (Yale University Press: 1998)

Daviau, Donald G. “Hermann Bahr and Gustav Klimt: A Chapter in the Breakthrough of Modernity in Turn-of-the-Century Vienna,” German Studies Review, Vol. 3, No. 1 (German Studies Association: Feb., 1980) 27-49.

Di Stefano, Eva. “Gustav Klimt: Art Nouveau Visionary,” (Sterling Publishing Company: 2008)

"Gustav Klimt: Mäda Primavesi (1903-2000) (64.148)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art

History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000 (October 2006)

Néret, Gilles. “Gustav Klimt: 1862-1918,” (Thunder Bay Press, CA: July 1997)

Reif, Rita. "Klimt Portrait Sets Auction Record." New York Times 12 May 1987: 15.

Schorske, Carl E. “Mahler and Klimt: Social Experience and Artistic Evolution,” Daedalus, Vol. 111, No. 3, Representations and Realities (The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts and Sciences) 29-50.

Vogel, Carol. "Lauder Pays $135 Million, a Record, for a Klimt Portrait." New York Times 19 June 2006: 1.

[1] David Dean Brockman, "Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)," (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 2007) 19-32.

[2] Gilles Néret, “Gustav Klimt: 1862-1918,” (Thunder Bay Press, CA: July 1997)


[3] Néret, 30.

[4] Néret, 60.

[5] Carol Vogel, "Lauder Pays $135 Million, a Record, for a Klimt Portrait." New York Times 19 June 2006: 1.

[6] Rita Reif, "Klimt Portrait Sets Auction Record." New York Times 12 May 1987: 15.

[7] Katharine Baetjer, “About Mäda,” Metropolitan Museum Journal, Vol. 40, Essays in Memory of John M. Brealey (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY: 2005), 136.

[8] Baetjer, 139.

[9] Baetjer, 140.

[10] "Gustav Klimt: Mäda Primavesi (1903-2000) (64.148)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000 (October 2006)

 [11] Baetjer, 143.

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