Gustav Klimt - painter and friend of musicians

A key figure of early 20th-century art, Gustav Klimt was also close to numerous musicians, many of whom greatly influenced his artistic creations including several of his most famous works.

Gustav Klimt - painter and friend of musicians
Gustav Klimt - painter and friend of musicians, © Getty / DEA Picture Library

Over one century ago, on 6 February 1918 to be precise, Gustav Klimt passed away. Known throughout the world for his artistic creations in an Art-Nouveau style, the Austrian painter was a contemporary of numerous composers also hoping to break away from artistic academicism. Amongst them his fellow countrymen Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler,Arnold Schoenberg, but also Claude Debussy, composer with whom he shares not only the years of his birth and death (1862-1918) but also a taste for nonconformity. Discover the musical world of Gustav Klimt, the painter with the Midas touch.

A music aficionado 

Ever since his early childhood, Gustav Klimt was surrounded by art and music: his father, Ernst Klimt, was a goldsmith, and his mother, Anna Finster, was an amateur lyrical singer. It is therefore unsurprising that the young Gustav quickly developed a great artistic sensibility.

He expressed throughout his life a great fondness for vocal music, and notably the Lieder by Schubert, whom he admired. He particularly appreciated "Der Lindenbaum" ("The Linden Tree"), from the song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey). Of course, his appreciation of such music was not without its own influence upon his work. He thus painted in 1898 a portrait of Schubert sat at the piano, destined to decorate the music room of a wealthy industrial and patron, Nikolaus Dumba.

Schubert At The Piano, by Gustav Klimt
Schubert At The Piano, by Gustav Klimt, © Getty / Heritage Images

First musical subjects

Although known for his works in the style of the Vienna Secession movement (the equivalent of the French Art-Nouveau), Klimt first explored a more neo-classical and more academic style of painting. In the 1880s, he completed numerous portraits and frescos in this style, building for himself a solid reputation as a decorative painter.

Amidst the many works created during this time, several pay homage to the world of music. In the works he created for the Vienna Burgtheater, for example, music is referenced by the musicians playing the aulos (or tibia in Latin), an ancient double-reeded wind-instrument made with two pipes.

"Le Théâtre à Taormina" (Italie), 1884-1888
"Le Théâtre à Taormina" (Italie), 1884-1888, © Getty / Gustav Klimt

The Beethoven Frieze

In 1902, the Secession, an artistic movement breaking from artistic academicism of which Klimt was a founding member, organised an exhibition dedicated to the music of the great Viennese maestro.

The centrepiece of the exhibition was the monumental statue of Beethoven created by Max Klinger, but the frieze by Klimt stole the public's attention. The work was notably praised by the great sculptor Auguste Rodin, a key artistic figure of the time.

For his creation, no less than 34 meters in length, Klimt drew inspiration from Beethoven's Symphony no.9, in particular the final movement and the "Ode to Joy". The frieze also displays various references to more current musical events. The depicted knight, for example, represents the composer and conductor Gustav Mahler, who conducted the Symphony no.9 for the occasion.

Chevalier en armure brillante, détail de la "Beethoven Frieze" qui représenterait Gustav Malher, 1902.
Chevalier en armure brillante, détail de la "Beethoven Frieze" qui représenterait Gustav Malher, 1902. , © Getty / Gustav Klimt

A passionate coffee-drinker

Much like many of the contemporary artists, intellectuals, and members of Austrian high-society, Klimt was a frequent patron of Vienna's cafés, busy sites of frequent and unlikely encounters in the Austrian capital. Many would stay for hours to talk, read the free newspapers, play cards, and even work.

The Viennese coffeehouse is a particular institution which is not comparable to any other in the world (Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday, 1942).

The Viennese cafés were veritable cultural hotspots where one could run into composers such as Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and the lesser-known Josef Pembaur, of whom Klimt painted a portrait in a style uniting realism and the Art-Nouveau style. The painting was later exhibited not in a café but in the Spaten brasserie, in Munich.

Portrait de Joseph Pembaur, pianiste et compositeur, 1890.
Portrait de Joseph Pembaur, pianiste et compositeur, 1890. , © Getty / Gustav Klimt

An idyll with Alma

At the age of 37, Klimt fell under the spell of the young Alma Schindler, the daughter-in-law of his friend and collaborator, the painter Carl Moll. Despite being almost 17 years younger than Klimt, the young Alma was not insensitive to the famous painter's charms, experiencing a profound passion for the man. However, their idyll remained mostly platonic, with the exception of a brief kiss, due to the father-in-law's firm opposition to the couple's relationship.

Photo d'Alma Schindler vers 1900.
Photo d'Alma Schindler vers 1900. , © Getty

Given her numerous qualities, the young woman, perhaps the most desirable of all Vienna, soon found comfort elsewhere. Intelligent, cultured, beautiful, Alma was also an excellent musician. She composed several Lieder on the subject of love, undoubtedly inspired by her brief relationship with Klimt...

Two years later, Alma made the acquaintance of Gustav Mahler, a composer whom she greatly admired, at a high-class diner to which was also invited Klimt. The composer quickly became enamoured of Alma, and decided to marry the young woman shortly after...

A source of inspiration for musicians

The inspiration between Klimt and countless musicians was wholly requited. The painter's creations strongly influenced the Viennese composer Anton Webern, for example; a great admirer of Klimt, the composer regularly came to admire the works of the famous painter in the studios of the Secession movement.

Following a visit of the exhibition dedicated to Klimt after his death in 1920, Webern expressed his sentiments in a letter to his friend and colleague Alban Berg: "the indescribable impression of a bright kingdom, tender and celestial". Though the composer did not leave behind any compositions explicitly inspired by the work of Klimt, the latter was nonetheless without a doubt one of the composer's artistic references.

Die Musik, 1895.
Die Musik, 1895. , © Getty / Gustav Klimt