Given the heights to which he would rise in the Viennese art world, Gustav Klimt's beginnings were hardly auspicious. The son of a poor Bohemian goldsmith, Klimt grew up with his brothers, Ernst and Georg, and sisters, Klara, Hermine and Johanna, in the tenements of what is today Vienna's 14th District. (A fourth sister, Anna, died at the age of five when Gustav was twelve.) By the time Gustav reached adolescence, his family's always precarious financial situation had worsened, and it was clear that he and his two younger brothers would have to support the others. Gustav, whose artistic talent was already evident, therefore applied not to the prestigious Academy of Fine Arts, where the leading artists and architects taught and studied, but to the more commercially oriented Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts).
Klimt initially planned to become a drawing instructor, but after he had completed the preliminary coursework, the Director of the Kunstgewerbeschule encouraged him to instead join the department of figural drawing and painting. Although the normal program of study at the Kunstgewerbeschule comprised two to three years, Klimt remained there an astonishing seven years. The Kunstgewerbeschule afforded invaluable professional contacts, and Klimt began earning a living as an artist years before he left the school. As early as 1879, he began collaborating with his younger brother Ernst (who had entered the Kunstgewerbeschule two years after he did) and another fellow student, Franz Matsch. The trio eventually established a formal workshop, which they dubbed the Künstler-Compagnie der Gebrüder Klimt und Matsch (Artists' Company, Klimt Brothers and Matsch).
At the time, the Austrian government, bolstered by a protracted economic boom, was sponsoring new public works all over the Empire. This building program-crowned by the grand edifices along Vienna's fabled Ringstrasse-generated a wealth of commissions for artists. Through the Kunstgewerbeschule, the Künstler-Compagnie gained entrée into this lucrative realm. The trio began by designing curtains and murals for a provincial theaters, and gradually gained access to the studio of Hans Makart, Vienna's reigning art star. A favorite of the Imperial court, Makart was not only a sought-after society portraitist, but also a popular sensation, whose monumental canvases drew thousands of viewers and who was frequently called upon to create elaborate wall decorations for the new Ringstrasse buildings. Shortly before Makart's death in 1884, the Künstler-Compagnie was invited to help complete one of his last, unfinished projects: the murals for the quarters of the Empress Elizabeth at the Hermesvilla in the Lainzer Tiergarten.
The Hermesvilla murals proved decisive for the Künstler-Compagnie. Not only was this their first significant Imperial commission, but it brought them to the attention of the Emperor's favorite architect, Karl von Hasenauer. Hasenauer was responsible for the Künstler-Compagnie's first major Viennese assignment, a cycle of paintings for the new Burgtheater. Klimt received the Emperor's Golden Order of Merit for his contributions to this project in 1888, and a second prestigious commission in the Imperial capital followed soon thereafter. In 1890 the Künstler-Compagnie was asked to complete the staircase decorations for the Kunsthistorisches Museum, another of Makart's unfinished assignments. In scarcely ten years, the Künstler-Compagnie had made it from the provinces to the big time. Blessed with Imperial patronage and, symbolically, with the mantel of the revered Makart, the members of the Künstler-Compagnie seemed poised to become the darlings of the Austrian establishment.
As it transpired, however, this honor was accorded to only one of the three: Franz Matsch, who developed a sizable following among the aristocracy and was himself ennobled in 1912. By this time, Ernst Klimt was long dead, and Gustav's career had taken a very different turn. Stunned by Ernst's death from pericarditis in 1892, Gustav entered a period of artistic withdrawal that strained his relationship with Franz more or less to the breaking point. With the Künstler-Compagnie in shambles, Klimt nevertheless agreed in 1893 to share one final assignment with Matsch, a series of murals for the University ofRead More