At Large  October 4, 2022  Effie Jackson

Gustav Klimt & the Art Nouveau Woman's Fighting Spirit

Wikipedia Commons

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907. Detail. Oil, silver, and gold on canvas, 138 cm x 138 cm (54 in x 54 in), Neue Galerie, New York City, New York

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was born and died in Vienna, where he helped found the Vienna Secession, a contemporary art movement closely related to Art Nouveau. He received formal training at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts. But Klimt’s reputation as an artist was tarnished when he revealed his commissioned ceiling paintings Philosophy (1900), Medicine (1901), and Jurisprudence (1907) to the University of Vienna.

The series of murals were criticized for being pornographic and explicit. They were rejected by the university and later destroyed by Nazi troops during World War II. Such radical pieces became central to Klimt’s artistic identity, and this series, the Faculty Paintings, are not his only work that faced some sort of backlash.


Gustav Klimt, photo of Philosophy, 1900.

The Vienna Secession is arguably rooted in the creation of Modernism. As a criticism of the conservative institutions in Vienna at the time, the movement challenged existing ideas on philosophy and artistic style. Secessionist artists proposed and created new aesthetics which challenged historical art and pushed for new aesthetics.

Klimt served as the first president of the Vienna Secession and is arguably the creator of the Art Nouveau movement as well. In an effort  to separate itself from the conservatism of Victorian Europe, the Art Nouveau movement embraced female sensuality, power, and strength across different mediums such as fashion, art, and architecture.

The fighting spirit of the Art Nouveau woman can arguably be found in Klimt’s portrayals of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1881-1925), a Jewish socialite of Vienna who rejected society’s norms of womanhood. The turn of the nineteenth century was a period of political and cultural tension in pre-World War I Europe, with rapid industrialization occurring simultaneously with rising antisemitism.

Gustav Klimt, The Three Ages of Woman, 1905. Oil on canvas, 71 x 71 in. (180 x 180 cm.), Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna, Rome.

One archetype of the Art Nouveau woman was as a sex symbol, according to art historian Jan Thompson. The provocative woman was the standard outside of the archetype Klimt created. Bloch-Bauer represented this new woman, whose beauty played alongside intricate ornamentation. The socialite was arguably Klimt’s greatest muse, whose husband commissioned two portraits, by the artist after establishing their relationship at the turn of the century with Judith I (1901).

Wikimedia Commons

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, 1912. Oil on canvas, 74.8 x 47.2 in. (190 x 120 cm.), private collection.

Klimt’s heavy use of gold and gold leaf in his works Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I and Judith I was inspired by his visit to the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, where he was inspired by the heavy use of gold in Byzantine Christian art.

The significance of the ornamentation is reflective of Bloch-Bauer as a person. The socialite was a progressive intellectual who rejected social norms regarding the roles of women. Instead of being confined to domesticity, Bloch-Bauer inserted herself into the predominantly male world of intellectual society. At the turn of the nineteenth century, this would have been an uncommon ideology and not socially accepted.

Given Bloch-Bauer’s views of womanhood, this makes Klimt’s portrayal of her as the biblical heroine Judith, who divinely used her beauty to defeat her Assyrian enemy and save the Israelites from tyranny, incredibly significant to his artistic career.

It’s important to note that Klimt was not Jewish, therefore the Jewish iconography portrayed in Judith I reflects the pervasiveness of Jewish culture in mainstream society during this time, despite the ascension antisemitism. Klimt’s choice of Bloch-Bauer as the model is critical to its function since it directly combats the aforementioned anti-Semitic views of Jewish persons in pre-World War I Europe.

Wikipedia Commons

Gustav Klimt, Judith I, 1901. Oil on canvas, 84 cm x 42 cm (33 in x 16.5 in), Austrian Gallery Belvedere, Vienna, Austria

The Book of Judith is in the Catholic and Orthodox Christian Old Testament canon. And although Judith was Jewish, the Book of Judith was excluded from the Hebrew Bible, known as the Tanakh. Italian Renaissance and Baroque scholar Elena Ciletti and Medieval scholar Henrike Lähnemann suggest this exclusion is due to Judith’s sexuality in relation to the gaze of Holofernes.

Klimt’s inclusion of Judith as partially nude, while ornamented with a large gold necklace and makeup, showcases the heroine in a modern light: one where female sexuality is embraced and does not compromise piety.

Bloch-Bauer perfectly represents Judith in her original context in this way since she was wealthy, wise, and sought a life of leadership. This type of woman was regarded as a “degenerate” by the Nazi party in an attempt to demonize and brutalize women's ambition. Degeneracy would later be used to categorize Modern art as a whole in the Degenerate Art Exhibition (1937) once the idea evolved past gender roles and into ideas of racial purity.

Not only did Klimt’s Art Nouveau archetype challenge the one-dimensionality of others’ interpretations of female sexuality, but his portfolio as an artist challenged notions of tradition and aesthetics. Klimt’s showcasing of Jewish strength not only revitalized Judith as a Modern icon, but transcended the sociopolitical tensions of pre-WWI Europe. In this way, his Art Nouveau archetype stands strong as a beacon of justice against fascism.

About the Author

Effie Jackson

Effie Jackson is a contributing writer for Art & Object and graduated from UNC Asheville with a BA in Art History, where she received the University Research Scholar award in recognition for her undergraduate thesis. She is currently pursuing her MBA at Meredith College in preparation for a career in gallery/museum administration. When she is not working or studying, she loves doing yoga and playing with the family pup.

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