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Klimt and Art Nouveau

Updated on July 31, 2019
Alfonse Mucha
Alfonse Mucha

During the latter part of the 19th century, the European and American art communities began to fall away from the harsh and severe constraints of the Victorian Era and Industrial Revolution. “The new art” or Art nouveau made its way into the lives of everyday people from 1890-1910, through decorative furniture, architecture, products, fashion and in traditional art pieces. Art Nouveau was a rejection of the previous historical approach to art and depicted an organic flow with free and graceful lines. Gustav Klimt’s piece, Three Ages of Women, 1905, is an astounding example of this period.

In the latter part of the 1800s printing and mass production inventions allowed for artists to reach a large population of “everyday people”, where before the industrial revolution this was not possible. The industrial revolution was a catalyst for the urban environment and commercial media. Meanwhile the Victorian Era’s elaborate design work was full of romantic notions portraying a desire to return to a simpler life. However, both time periods clashed with one another in social movements that transcended into art. Led by William Morris (1834-96), the Arts and Crafts movement rejected these previous periods and wished to keep the integrity and individuality of each hand worked piece at the forefront of society.

The Great Wave at Kanagawa (from 36 views of Mount Fuji), c.1829  -Katsushika Hokusai
The Great Wave at Kanagawa (from 36 views of Mount Fuji), c.1829 -Katsushika Hokusai


As art and the idea of design was finding its way into mass society, artists felt freer to deviate from the previous classic artwork of the past, such as neo-classicism, Romanticism, Medievalism, etc.  Instead, artists began to experiment with new techniques and began to look to the Far East for inspiration.  The art movement of Japan, Ukiyo-e, meaning “pictures of the floating world” amazed European artists and caused them to realize a new way of depicting a scene.  Ukiyo-e was an innovative method of subjects and landscapes suggesting impressionistic qualities, simplifying lines while utilizing bold black shapes and decorative patterns.  Japanese art gave way to the Art Nouveau period, motivating artists with a variety of new ideas and techniques that displayed individual expression rather than detailed depictions. During this period artists that previously worked with past styles and media began to experiment in an exciting new world of decadence and freedom from the restraints of art being standardized in any one way.


Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was an Austrian painter and co-founder of the Vienna Secession, or the Viennese version of art nouveau.    Klimt began in 1883 as an artist/decorator, painting murals in the Museum of Vienna.  Perhaps his largest accomplishment was the Beethoven Frieze (1905-09), a cycle of mosaic decorations for Josef Hofman’s Palais Stoclet in Brussels.  Klimt was inspired by many styles including classical Greek, Byzantine, Egyptian, and Minoan art.  As well as, late-medieval painting, woodcuts of Albert Durer, symbolist art to name a few; Klimt incorporated all of these sources into a fresh and eclectic style combining symbolism and art nouveau.

Gustav Klimt
Gustav Klimt


Klimt’s Three Ages of Women invokes a very primal connection between women in various stages of life and death.  Klimt’s use of mosaics of different colors, shapes, the flowing lines, the gold leaf accents and the abstract yet detailed female forms are typical of this new age of decadence.  The symbolism of dark shadow cast over the old woman, and the light embracing the mother and child, are utter reminders of the cycle of life.  The contrasting colors of red on the bed, nude dark wrinkled skin (the old woman) and blue on the bed and clothing against the pale, nude

youthful bodies (the mother and child) are set against an impressionistic type dark background. The textures and colors are interchangeably muted and bright throughout Klimt’s painting creating a swirl of emotion. The elongated bodies and distorted angles of the females were part of the “art nouveau” female depiction of the time. Klimt often used sexuality, regeneration, life

and death as primal dominant themes in his work, Three Ages of Women is an example of all of these aspects his individual style.



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