5 Alluring Female Portraits Painted by Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt’s female portraits are fascinatingly complex, in spite of being painted at a time when portraiture still largely focused on highlighting the sitter’s status.

Apr 12, 2024By Liana Khapava, BA Culture & Art, w/ Art History Concentration

female portraits gustav klimt


Gustav Klimt redefined the modern female portrait. He introduced elements that were until then reserved for the decorative arts or medieval icons. Klimt used gold, restless geometrical shapes, and dazzling enamel-like colors. While most academic portraitists of his time focused on showing clothes and settings as realistically as possible, Klimt simplified them. The furniture and background in his portraits disintegrated into shapes of various colors and geometric designs. In his later portraits, like the Lady with a Fan, Klimt’s interest in oriental motifs shines through, although decorative elements remained a highlight of his style for most of his career.


Gustav Klimt’s Groundbreaking Portraits of Women

gustav klimt lady with fan painting
Lady with a Fan by Gustav Klimt, 1918, via Sotheby’s


Klimt studied at the Viennese Kunstgewerbeschule, a school of applied arts, where he learned about ornament, mosaics, design, as well as metalworking techniques. Moreover, his father was a gold engraver, which might have contributed to the artist’s later predilection for this precious metal. Because of his studies, he had the knowledge and skills that were necessary to introduce the elements of gold and mosaic into his works.


But it wasn’t just the combination of new techniques that made his portraits stand out among the more conventional portraits of his contemporaries. The way the artist chose to portray the sitters, especially women, in his portraits was unique. Klimt’s use of ornament on the clothing of the sitters and in the background has the effect of almost dissolving the figures. They start to look two-dimensional.


The emphasis is on the model’s face. Most women in Klimt’s portraits look straight at the viewer, their eyes and intense expressions become the focal point of the entire painting. Klimt’s portraits aim to capture the feminine ideal without marginalizing the women he portrays as mere prettily dressed dolls. Each portrayed woman retains her own character and individuality.

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Klimt’s Golden Touch  

gustav klimt the kiss painting detail
The Kiss (detail) by Gustav Klimt, 1907-1908, The Belvedere, Vienna


One of the first things anyone would think of in connection to Klimt is gold. The artist’s Golden Phase lasted for about ten years, yet during this time he produced some of his finest masterpieces like The Kiss and Judith and the Head of Holofernes. Klimt also incorporated gold leaf into some of his portraits, probably the best known of which is the magnificent portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Gold has been used for centuries as a means to convey the concepts of spacelessness and timelessness. Byzantine icons and Proto-Renaissance Madonnas were often portrayed against a background of shining gold to show that the divine subjects existed in eternity, outside of mortal time. That’s why Klimt’s use of the same technique for portraits was a daring and highly innovative step.


Klimt was very successful as a portraitist, creating beautiful and complex portraits of the Viennese society members. The artist portrayed his subjects in surprisingly modern ways. He experimented with various color schemes and techniques, merged the foreground and background in his paintings, and used unusual materials like gold in his work. Throughout his career, Klimt managed to create a whole new approach to portraiture that influenced modern art for years to come.


He positioned his subjects in a golden glow, their bodies deconstructed by the geometrical ornaments and brilliant hues of the mosaic pieces around them. They no longer belong to a particular time, existing instead inside what Hungarian journalist and writer Ludwig Hevesi described as the never-ending, infinitely mutating primal matter. This characteristic of timelessness is typical of many portraits created by Klimt throughout his life. The way he achieved this floating, spaceless harmony in his depictions of women can be traced by looking at five of his famous female portraits.


1. Portrait of Serena Lederer: Symphony in White 

klimt portrait serena lederer painting
Portrait of Serena Lederer by Gustav Klimt, 1899, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


One of Klimt’s earlier portraits, the Portrait of Serena Lederer is a full-length image of one of Klimt’s patrons. Serena Lederer and her husband collected Klimt’s works and commissioned several portraits of their family. Their collection was lost after it was confiscated by the Nazi government in 1940 and then destroyed when the Immendorf Castle, where they were kept, was set on fire. Serena Lederer’s portrait along with other family portraits remained in the family and thus escaped destruction.


In this portrait, Klimt’s focus is on the sitter’s face, with the rest of her figure almost dissolving in the white, cream, and silvery tones of the background and the dress. The artist draws attention to the sitter’s smooth light skin, dark hair, and luminous eyes. The portrait may have been inspired by Whistler’s Symphony in White No. 1, painted in 1862. Whistler’s painting similarly shows a woman in a long white dress against a background of cream and beige.


2. Portrait of Emilie Flöge: Geometrical Puzzle 

gustav klimt portrait emilie floege painting
Portrait of Emilie Flöge by Gustav Klimt, 1902, Wien Museum, Vienna


The 1902 full-length portrait of Emilie Flöge shows one of the artist’s most famous models, who was also his lover. Apart from sitting for some of Klimt’s masterpieces, like The Kiss, she was also a businesswoman and a fashion designer. She and her sisters, Helene and Pauline, owned the fashion house Schwestern Flöge, meaning The Flöge Sisters. Her flowing designs incorporated bold geometric patterns, like the ones seen on the dresses of women portrayed by Klimt.


In Klimt’s portrait, Emilie’s slender figure is outlined in a gown bursting with squares, circles, and swirls. She is also wearing a choker collar that was often portrayed by Klimt in his other portraits. Behind the sitter’s head, there’s an irregular field of geometrical patterns in blue, purple, green, and gold that cause Emilie’s head to stand out from the darker background. The blues also highlight the sitter’s eyes.


3. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold 

klimt portrait adele bloch bauer painting
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt, 1907, Neue Galerie, New York


His Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer caused a major controversy when the Austrian government had a lawsuit with the heir of the portrayed woman, who was Jewish and whose family suffered from the persecution of the Jewish population of Austria during World War II. Adele Bloch-Bauer was a Viennese socialite and patron of the arts. She sat for two formal portraits by Klimt. She also posed for some of his famous paintings, like Judith and the Head of Holofernes.


In the first and more famous portrait, Klimt portrays Adele against a golden background, dressed in a stunning golden dress. Klimt chose an unusual square format for the portrait. Adele is not placed centrally, yet the unifying gold of her gown and background cause her face and hands to stand out in direct contrast to the yellow shine of the precious metal. Some scholars argue that the eye-like pattern seen on her dress is a tribute to Klimt’s fascination with ancient Egyptian art. Her pose seems static, but the uncomfortable twist of her hands, as well as her half-open mouth, create the illusion of a very life-like gesture.


4. Portrait of Marie Henneberg: Subtle Blues and Greys 

klimt portrait marie henneberg painting
Portrait of Marie Henneberg by Gustav Klimt, 1901-1902, Art Museum Moritzburg, Halle


Marie Henneberg was the wife of Hugo Henneberg, a physicist and photographer. He was a member of the British photography association The Linked Ring which was committed to defending photography as an art. It’s interesting that Klimt’s portrait of Marie Henneberg has very little photographic naturalism in it.


There is little differentiation between background and foreground. For example, the armchair Mrs. Henneberg is sitting on blends into the carpet and wallpaper. Although mostly associated with bright, jewel-like colors and gold, Klimt created this portrait using a much more hushed palette. Marie Henneberg is shown floating in the silvery white ruffles of her dress. Only the bouquet of blue flowers and her face provide a break from the grey-blue color scheme. As in most of Klimt’s female portraits, the sitter looks directly at the viewer.


5. Portrait of Mäda Primavesi: Young and Bold 

klimt portrait maeda primavesi painting
Portrait of Mäda Primavesi by Gustav Klimt, 1912, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Mäda Primavesi was the daughter of one of Klimt’s patrons, Otto Primavesi. Klimt painted her in a striking pose with bold, multi-colored patterns on the rug and wallpaper in order to create a highly unusual portrait. It varies greatly from the typical portraits of young girls of the period. These usually aimed at presenting the innocence and marriageability of wealthy people’s daughters. While Mäda is dressed in a fairly modest white frock, her confident pose, direct eye contact with the viewer, and central position in the painting don’t have anything docile or submissive about them.


klimt portrait maeda primavesi painting detail
Detail of the Portrait of Mäda Primavesi by Gustav Klimt, 1912, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


In this portrait, Klimt also incorporated motifs from Japanese art. The shapes of birds and fish can be distinguished on the thick carpet that the girl is standing on. The symmetric composition and determined pose of the girl create a sense of firmness and strength, while the white dress together with the cheerful colors accent Mäda’s youth.

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By Liana KhapavaBA Culture & Art, w/ Art History ConcentrationLiana is an art historian, currently working as an editor and copywriter, who loves writing about art in her free time. With a BA in Culture and Art from the New Bulgarian University and a PGCert in Collecting and Provenance from the University of Glasgow, she is passionate about art history, iconography, and literature. She loves books, wandering around in museums, and traveling.