Throughout the last two decades of the 19th Century, Gustav Klimt and his group, the Künstler-Compagnie receive some prestigious commissions from the Viennese Court. The current Emperor is Franz Joseph I; his wife is the famous Sissi.
Thanks to the contribution of the director of the School of Applied Arts in Vienna, and the sudden death of the court painter, Hans Makart, the Company receives its first Imperial assignment: murals for the quarters of the Empress Elizabeth at the Hermesvilla, in Vienna. After the success of this project, the offers come flooding in.
As part of the ambitious Burgtheater development, the artists are commissioned with decorating the grand staircase. Their iconographic series should tell the story of the theater from its beginnings up to the Renaissance. Klimt produces the frescoes The Altar of Dionysus, The Theater at Taormina, Thespis' Cart, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre (within which his only self-portrait is found) and finally Romeo and Juliet. The Burgtheater frescoes are widely acclaimed and earn the Company their Imperial award. Around the same time, Vienna's municipal council commissions Klimt and Matsch to each paint a version of the auditorium of the old Burgtheater. Klimt’s preparation for this canvas comprises more than 1,500 sketches. Within the piece, he paints 130 portraits of Vienna’s elite, among those the composer Johannes Brahms. His masterpiece earns him the highest Imperial distinction, the Kaiserpreis award.
Because Vienna is undergoing a renaissance, the institutional commissions come flowing in and the Artists’ Company is selected to complete the staircase decoration for the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna’s Museum of Art History. Their brief for the project is to present the evolution of styles from Ancient Egypt and Greece up to Rococo.
This is a key turning point in Klimt's career which sees him move away from academicism. Some of the traits for which Klimt is still renowned to this day are observed in his pieces for the Kunsthistorisches Museum. In Old Italian Art, the faces and hands appear life like and contrast with the abundance of gold in the clothes and halos on the figures. With the superimposed layers, Klimt reaffirms his penchant for the two-dimensional. The influence of Fernand Khnopff, the Belgian symbolist artist, admired greatly by Klimt, is already notable in the front facing stance of the figure in Egypt and in the depiction of the face of the young girl from Tanagra in Ancient Greece.
According to the press at the time, on seeing the finished work, Emperor Franz Joseph I had praised Gustav Klimt, Ernst Klimt and Franz Matsch, saying “I have no doubt it was an extraordinarily difficult feat; I delight in everything you produce!”