The Fame Behind Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss Painting

September 22, 2018

Vienna’s most renowned artist of the era, Gustav Klimt is still remembered as one of the greatest decorative painters of the twentieth century. Known for a highly personal, eclectic and often fantastic style, he was seen as an artist far ahead of his time. Today, many of his paintings are considered masterpieces, though The Kiss by Klimt, a particularly exquisite piece, seems to float above the rest.

Created during the height of Klimt's Golden Period, it has enchanted audiences since it was painted in 1908. A deceptively simple portrait of lust and love, The Kiss painting depicts a couple embracing, their bodies entwined in richly embellished robes. Hanging in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere museum in the Viennese Belvedere Palace, it attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year with its powerful presence.

Portrait of Gustav Klimt by Trcka Josef Anton, 1914
Portrait Gustav Klimt by Trcka Josef Anton, 1914

The Golden Period of Klimt's Art

A co-founder and a leading member of the Vienna Secession, the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt ensured that this arts movement would become widely influential. Despite not having a genuine manifest, the group’s founding principles were to provide young and unconventional artists with an outlet to show their work, to expose Vienna to the great works of foreign artists and to publish a periodical titled Ver Sacrum which would make the artworks of the members visible. Bringing together all Naturalists, Realists and Symbolists to work together and extend their vocabularies in different directions, the group attempted to keep art above the realm of commercial concerns.

It was in these unbiased circumstances the Austrian painter created his Secessionists pieces, transforming traditional allegory and symbolism into a new language that was more overtly sexual and hence more disturbing to some.

In 1903, Klimt traveled twice to Ravenna, where he saw mosaics of San Vitale, whose Byzantine influence was apparent in the paintings of what would become known as his Golden Period. He started producing works featuring pronounced planes and delicate detailing made of gold leaf, at the same time reflecting the metalwork of his father and younger brother Ernst, who have both died a decade earlier. In this period, the artist moved towards greater stability through static, inorganic forms, with gilding giving each piece a glimmering appearance.

Representing the pinnacle of this period, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss represents the mystical union of spiritual and erotic love and the merging of the individual with the eternal cosmos, a theme previously explored in works such as The Beethoven Frieze and The Tree of Life.

Gustav Klimt The Kiss painting in gold leaf depicting a man and a woman
Gustav Klimt - The Kiss, 1907-1908

The Subject Matter of The Kiss by Klimt

The subject matter of Gustav Klimt's The Kiss is rather simple – it depicts a couple locked in an intimate embrace on the edge of a flowery meadow. The couple and the surrounding landscape are exquisitely rendered in a two-dimensional pattern.

The male figure, wearing a geometrically-printed robe, which suggests his dominant male force, and a crown of vines on his head, gently cradles the woman’s face. His face is obscured as he leans to kiss her. The female figure, dressed in a contrasting organically patterned dress, is wrapping one arm around her partner’s neck, while the other rests gently on his hand. Her eyes are peacefully closed, emphasizing the tranquility and intimacy of the scene. Her female energy is emphasized with a spinning circle of bright floral motifs and upward-flowing wavy lines.

The woman is being absorbed by the man, while both figures are engulfed by the body of gold in which they lie. These fine art materials, particularly gold and silver leaf, are used to highlight the sacred nature of human relationships and the bond between sensual lovers, a key theme underlining much of Art Nouveau.

Reflecting the artist’s fascination with eroticism, The Kiss painting is renowned for its tender representation of the female model. In its tenderness, expressed in the figure's delicate hands and dreamy face, the painting deviates from Klimt’s typical portrayal of woman as distant femme fatales, placing the female subject as a protagonist, rather than merely the object of desire.

While it has been speculated that the painting is drawn from the artist's life, the artist had left the identity of the figures as ambiguous intentionally, allowing the work to embody a universal, timeless vision of romantic love.

Gustav Klimt The Kiss painting in detail woman
Gustav Klimt - The Kiss (detail), 1907-1908

A Collision of Artistic Styles in The Kiss Painting

The Kiss embodies a range of artistic styles in a remarkably harmonious way. The use of gold leaf is traced back to the artist's affinity for Byzantine art, which inspired the entire "Golden Period", while the spiral patterns in the clothes recall Bronze Age art, the decorative tendrils seen in Western art since before classical times, but also the Arts and Crafts movement. The pose of the lovers, the exaggeration of their figures and the way these two forms are melded together, evoke the style of the Vienna Art Nouveau.

The composition of the piece, where the man's head is painted very close to the top of the canvas, departures from traditional Western canons and reflects the influence of Japanese pillar wood-block prints, which Klimt avidly collected. The Japonisme can also be seen in the very simplified composition.

The fine lines that compose the figures are very characteristic of Klimt, bringing to the fore his skilled and remarkable draughtsmanship. The canvas is also the evidence of his striking ability to gracefully conceive figurative yet dreamy subject matter.

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss

The Reception and Legacy

The painting was created soon after Klimt's three-part Klimt University of Vienna Ceiling Paintings|Vienna Ceiling series, which resulted in a scandal for its controversial subject matter, being criticized as both "pornography" and evidence of "perverted excess". This has much affected the artist's career, recasting him as an enfant terrible for his anti-authoritarian and anti-popularist views on art. The artist once wrote:

If you can not please everyone with your deeds and your art, please a few.

However, The Kiss was received with great enthusiasm, immediately being purchased by the Belvedere Museum for 25,000 crowns (or about $240,000 today) upon its display in the Austrian Gallery, despite the artist hadn't yet put the finishing touches on the work. Although the highest price paid for a painting in Austria was only 500 crowns to that point, it turned out to be a bargain since Klimt's less renowned Adele Bloch-Bauer I sold for $135 million in 2006, the highest sum ever paid for a painting at the time.

A centenary after his death, the legacy of The Kiss painting lives on more emphatically than ever, becoming one of the world's most recognized and beloved artworks. Epitomizing sentimental feelings of tenderness and love, it speaks to all generations of people.

Measuring just under six-by-six feet and having a radiating presence, seeing this substantial painting in person is an extraordinary experience. When re-assessing The Kiss for Klimt's 150th birthday, journalist Adrian Brijbassi wrote that the piece surpasses expectations, unlike that tiny and underwhelming Mona Lisa. After throwing shade on the more famous painting, Brijbassi explained:

[The Kiss] does what a great piece of art is supposed to do: Hold your gaze, make you admire its aesthetic qualities while trying to discern what's beyond its superficial aspects.

bauer adele bloch bauer adele blochEditors’ Tip: Gustav Klimt: The Kiss (Edition Belvedere) by Stefanie Penck, Alfred Weidinger, and Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss draws thousands of visitors to the Belvedere every year. Created at the height of his "Golden Period," this is, without a doubt, the masterpiece of the Jugendstil. In this fully illustrated volume, drawing on the latest research, the authors review the creation, significance and history of this ever-popular work, as well as information about the role of women in the artist’s life and works, offering a visual feast and an enjoyable read for all enthusiasts of the Viennese Jugendstil and its greatest master.

Featured image: Gustav Klimt - The Kiss (detail), 1907-1908. All images via Creative Commons.

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