Art History  •  Artworks under the lens

The Kiss: Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece in Gold

Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece, The Kiss (Lovers), exemplifies his renowned Gold Period and defines Art Nouveau painting. With its sensual, decadent gold and silver patterns and iconic composition, today it is a universal symbol of romantic love and human relationships and one of the most famous paintings in the history of art. In this article, Singulart takes a close look at Klimt’s career, the influences for his Gold Period and The Kiss itself. 

Who was Gustav Klimt?

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was an Austrian artist and the leader of the Vienna Secession movement, whose work would come to define the Art Nouveau movement. Born in 1862 in Baumgarten, Austria, Klimt was the son of a gold and silver engraver. Following his father’s artistic influence, he began studying at Vienna’s School of Applied Arts at the age of 14 where he took a range of subjects including fresco painting and mosaics.

Gustav Klimt, artist behind The Kiss

During his studies Klimt often created reproductions of the works of Old Masters in Vienna’s museums. He also sold portraits with his brother and worked for an ear specialist making technical drawings, all of which helped Klimt develop a mastery for depicting the human form. After completing his studies he opened his own studio in 1883, specializing in mural paintings.

Klimt’s early work was classical, in keeping with 19th century academic painting, as is exemplified by his murals for the Vienna Burgtheater (1888), for which he was awarded the Golden Order of Merit by the Emperor Franz Josef. In the early 1900’s he took his interest in the human form, more specifically the female form, further in a series of erotic drawings of women. From here, Klimt shed the classical pretenses for depicting the human form with propriety and began to explore themes of human desire, dreams and mortality through richly symbolic compositions which would come to define his style. Despite the enduring influence of the city’s traditional government and artistic establishment, Vienna at this time was a hub of bohemian artistic activity, and Klimt’s works fit in perfectly with the experiments other avant-garde cultural figures such as Otto Wagner, Gustav Mahler and Sigmund Freud. 

Klimt's mural above the Grand Staircase in the Vienna Burgtheater. His early work before the Kiss was classic in nature.
Klimt’s mural above the Grand Staircase in the Vienna Burgtheater

He continued his rebellious experimentation with his commissioned mural for the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where he represented the history of art from Egypt to the Renaissance through human female figures, rejecting any historical or allegorical pretext that would have deemed such portrayals acceptable by the establishment. This mural also marked the beginning of Klimt’s “femme fatales”, depictions of expressive, seductive women.  

In 1897, along with other members of Vienna’s Avant-Garde, Klimt founded and became the leader of a radical group called The Vienna Secession. His work became increasingly concerned with psychology and sexuality and women appear as his repeated favorite subject matter. A trip to Ravenna in Italy, where he encountered Byzantine art, led to his famous Gold Period. Klimt died at the age of 55 and despite having mentored artists such as Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka his legacy was somewhat overlooked until much later in the twentieth century. 

What is happening in The Kiss? 

The Kiss is perhaps Klimt’s most famous work and a prime example of his Gold Period and Art Nouveau style. The Kiss depicts a couple embracing at the edge of a meadow. The man’s head is turned away from the viewer as he kisses the woman on the cheek. She has her eyes closed and her head tilted as the man’s hands hold her face. She is kneeling, her toes touching the edge of the patterned meadow. The couple are entwined and their two figures and encompassed by a golden shroud, covered in gilded, Art Nouveau style patterns, creating a very sensual, atmospheric composition. The Kiss exemplifies many of the themes which run through Klimt’s works, namely love, intimacy and sexuality. 

The Kiss (Lovers), oil and gold leaf on canvas, 1907–1908.
The Kiss (Lovers), oil and gold leaf on canvas, 1907–1908.

Klimt’s influences for the Gold Period and The Kiss

Klimt’s use of fine materials and skilled craftsmanship in his paintings during the Gold Period, as exemplified by his use of gold and silver leaf in The Kiss, has its roots not only in Byzantine art but also in the more recent Arts and Crafts Movement. The flat, intricate patterns of the meadow and the figure’s clothes recall the patterns of William Morris from the late 19th century. The gilding in The Kiss is also reminiscent of Medieval illuminated manuscripts which were another source of inspiration for Morris and the Kelmscott Press. For Klimt, this gilding highlights a key theme of his work and of Art Nouveau: the sacred bond of human relationships and the sensuality of romantic relationships. It was also a symbol of Art Nouveau opulence and sensuality which pervades much of Klimt’s work. 

A major influence on the composition of The Kiss were Japanese wood-block prints, of which Klimt was an avid collector. Their influence is most notable in the position of the figures, who appear confined to the central section of the canvas, with their heads almost touching the top of the canvas which recalls the techniques of the Japanese wood-block prints. The almost abstract, gold-flecked background of The Kiss recalls the modernist concern with the tension between flatness and three-dimensions and this lends The Kiss an almost other-worldly quality which serves to enhance the sensuality of this image. 

A Japanese woodblock print, Foreigners in the Drawing Room of a Foreign Merchant's House in Yokohama Department, by artist Utagawa (Gountei) Sadahide, 1861. Japanese woodblock inspired the composition of The Kiss.
A Japanese woodblock print, Foreigners in the Drawing Room of a Foreign Merchant’s House in Yokohama Department, by artist Utagawa (Gountei) Sadahide, 1861

A universal symbol of romantic love

Many of Klimt’s studies for the male figure in The Kiss portray a bearded man, leaving it tempting to view it is a self portrait with either Emilie Floge or Adele Bloch-Bauer. However, despite this speculation, The Kiss endures more as a universal image of romantic love. Klimt painted The Kiss shortly after his commission for the ceiling of the University of Vienna which was met with great scandal and dismissed as pornographic and excessive. Klimt was unphased by this bad press, stating that “If you can not please everyone with your deeds and your art, please few” (which he inscribed on the back of his Nuda Veritas, 1899). Indeed The Kiss was much more positively received and sold immediately and it remains to this day Klimt’s most iconic work.

Love Klimt’s work? See similar contemporary artists in Singulart’s Inspired By Gustav Klimt collection.

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