When art lovers discuss expensive and luxury paintings, the “expensive” part is easy – you look at the prices. But “luxury” can lead to many debates on what is meant by “luxury artwork.”
For this article, we are using “luxury painting” in the context of an artwork specifically created to adorn religious places, public spaces, and the homes and palaces of the rich and famous. When we look at all the Gustav Klimt artworks from this perspective, many of his works can be described as luxury paintings – especially at the beginning of his career.
Luxury Gustav Klimt Art
Murals across Vienna
When Gustav Klimt’s professional career started in 1880, he was involved with mural paintings across Vienna. After that, however, it mainly was commissioned work that he, his brother, and a friend received as the “Company of Artists.”
Klimt, who had by then established himself as a formidable painter of architectural decorations, developed into a very successful artist during that period.
According to our definition, Gustav Klimt’s paintings from that period can be called luxury paintings. In 1886, for instance, the Viennese Burgtheater commissioned him and his two partners to decorate the Burgtheater. This was a recognition that the three members of the Company of Artists were the foremost luxury art decorators in Austria.
The paintings on the ceiling and stairwell in the Burgtheater adorn the inside of the theater. On one side of the gala stairwell, Gustav Klimt recreated the theater of antiquity in Taormina, Sicily. He decorated the other side of the stairs with scenes from Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and a clear depiction of the Globe Theatre in London.
Great Hall of the University of Vienna
Unfortunately, Gustav Klimt’s last commissioned work, according to our definition, also luxury art was not well-received by the public. The University of Vienna commissioned him to create three paintings for the University’s Great Hall ceiling.
These three paintings were created in his new symbolist style where the female body was his primary subject, and he used it in a frank erotic way. He made three paintings:
“Philosophy” shows a group of figures, ranging from children at the top to an old man at the bottom. On the other side is a sphinx-like head, suggesting that only one can make sense of the world with philosophy and knowledge. A female lead represents the head.
“Medicine” features a column of nude figures representing the river of life. Besides the queue, a young nude female floats in space with a newborn infant at her feet. They represent life, while a skeleton represents death in the river of life. The mythological medicine god’s daughter is with the Aesculapius snake around her arm. She also has the cup of Lethe in her hand.
“Jurisprudence” features three female figures representing Justice, Law, and Truth. In the foreground is an older man representing the victim, accused by the three naked females.
All three of these “luxury” paintings were widely criticized as pornographic and have never been used in the Great Hall.
Expensive Paintings by Gustav Klimt
When it comes to prices paid for artworks, it is when a painting has been auctioned in public that the actual cost is known. But unfortunately, museums and private collectors don’t readily reveal what they’ve paid for paintings.
There are three Gustav Klimt paintings where the selling prices are known, and with these prices in mind, it can be speculated that many of his works are worth thousands of dollars.
“Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I”
“Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” is, as far as we know, the most expensive Klimt painting. According to press reports, in June 2006, it was sold for US$135 million to Ronald Lauder for his Neue Galerie in New York City. In 2006 it was not only the most expensive Klimt painting but also received the highest price ever paid for a painting.
In 1903 Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer commissioned Klimt to paint his wife’s portrait. “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” became one of Klimt’s most prepared paintings. He had made more than a hundred sketches and studied the Byzantine gold mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna before he finished the painting. As a result, he only painted her face and hands in oil and covered the rest of the 138 x 138 cm canvas in gold and silver leaf.
The final painting depicts Adele Bloch-Bauer dressed in a gold dress on a golden chair in front of a detailed, patterned gold background.
“Adele Bloch-Bauer II”
Gustav Klimt – Adele Bloch-Bauer II
Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer II” is a 1912 painting of the same lady he had painted between 1903 and 1907. In November 2006, Christie’s sold the painting at auction for almost $88 million. This was the fourth-highest-priced piece of art at auction at the time.
Gustav Klimt – The Kiss
“The Kiss” is one of the best-known works by Gustav Klimt and was sold to the Belvedere Museum for 25,000 crowns – roughly $240,000 in current U.S. currency – before it was finished. It was five times higher than any painting previously sold in Vienna.
Klimt completed “The Kiss” in 1908, and the painting shows a man and a woman embracing among flowers. They are dressed in contrasting patterns made of gilded forms. As in Gustav Klimt’s works, this painting has love, intimacy, and sexuality as common themes.
The Bottom Line
There are many Gustav Klimt drawings, sketches, landscapes, and portraits, and although some are controversial, he has a monumental influence on artists in the 20th and 21st centuries. Therefore, it is not surprising that $135 million was paid for one of his paintings. Another painting, “The Kiss,” was bought even before its completion in 1907 for a present amount of $240,000.