Portraits of Viennese Society Women
“I have never painted a self-portrait. I am less interested in myself as a subject for a painting than I am in other people, above all women.” Gustav Klimt
Despite the controversy surrounding the faculty paintings and the rupture between Klimt and the institutional world, the Viennese bourgeoisie still show a compelling interest in his art. This clientele holds up the Secession: they live in the distinctive hotels built by Josef Hoffmann, they decorate, dress and accessorise in the products created by the Wiener Werkstätte. Sonja Knips, Serena Lederer, Eugenie Primavesi, Adele Bloch-Bauer, Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein... All Viennese society women whom Klimt paints in portrait. By way of their commissions and patronage, these women and their husbands contribute significantly to Klimt's career, assuring his fame and financial security.
The evolution of the portraits of society women is interesting because it reveals his changes in style, adaptation and new influences.
The first portrait Klimt is commissioned to paint is the Portrait of Sonja Knips in 1897. This is an important step, marking the start of an evolution. It is the first time Klimt opts for the square format that will become his trademark. His style is still influenced by symbolism and Klimt fills every space on the canvas. Blank space is transformed into a surface of colour, embellishment and gold. While Sonja may be dressed very classically, the women in the portraits after this are liberated from the heavy traditional dresses and restricting corsets that are appropriate attire for high society at the time. Instead, Klimt paints these women in long dresses of Byzantine influence. The new style of dress is not imagined. The women really wear it. It is dressmaker, Emilie Flöge, Klimt’s closest friend, who develops this new fashion. Incidentally, Klimt paints the Portrait of Emilie Flöge (1902), in which the subject wears one of her own creations. In this large rectangular canvas, a format used by Klimt predominantly for portraits, Emilie is not presented as a seductress but, rather, a confident entrepreneurial figure.
His penchant for embellishment culminates in the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907), the Golden Phase masterpiece, in which Adele’s pale face and dark hair stand out against a gold background rich in exquisite, decorative motifs and enigmatic symbolism. With this work, Klimt flirts with Abstraction. Adele almost disappears in the gold surface. But Klimt realises at this point his desire to return to a freer, less restricted representation of his models. Influenced by Fauvism, he gradually abandons the use of gold, dressing his models in colorful patterns and placing them in an equally color rich setting. A prime example of this evolution is the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912), a stark contrast to the gold version in 1907. Additionally, the model’s personality shines through more assuredly in his later portraits like Lady with Hat and Feather Boa (1909) and Mäda Primavesi (1912).