Gustav Klimt: Letter from Gustav Klimt in Venice to Anna and Ernest Klimt sen. in Vienna, 06/08/1890, The Albertina Museum

Gustav Klimt: Moving Water, 1898, private collection
© Kallir Research Institute, New York

Gustav Klimt: Picture postcard from Gustav Klimt in Ravenna to Anna Klimt in Vienna, 12/03/1903, The Albertina Museum

Gustav Klimt: Judith II (Salome), 1909, Ca'Pesaro - Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna
© Photo Archive - Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia

Austrian pavilion, photograph from the portfolio "International Art Exhibition Rome 1911", 1911
© Klimt Foundation, Vienna

Gustav Klimt: Church in Cassone on Lake Garda, 1913, private collection
© Sotheby's

Educational trips and exhibition participations took Gustav Klimt to Italy at least seven times. The impressions he received there had a decisive influence on his oeuvre.

1890 and 1899: The First Trips to Italy
Though Gustav Klimt – who would become “homesick already in Villach” – was a reluctant traveler, he visited Italy at least seven times. A possible trip to Northern Italy, which likely happened as early as the late 1880s, cannot be verified. The artist’s first proven stay in Italy took place in 1890. In the early summer of that year, Klimt and his brother Ernst embarked on a journey to Trieste and Venice. They visited Trieste Cathedral, dedicated to Saint Justus, Miramare Castle and a steamship belonging to the Österreichischer Lloyd [Austrian Lloyd], among other sights. In a letter written to his parents on 8th June from “Wehnedig” [pun on “Venedig” (German for Venice) and “Weh” (German for woe)], Klimt described his impressions:

“We are living the life of wastrels here, we are busy eating, drinking, seeing and sleeping; bringing back money will be an almost impossible undertaking, as all of Venice is holding out its hand for our money, causing our lire to melt away at a shocking speed. The grub, though prepared in the Viennese style, leaves a lot to be desired, the tap water is very warm, forcing us to stick to beer, which is produced in Graz and very good.”

In the spring of 1899, Klimt embarked on another trip to Italy, lasting around ten days, which led him, the Moll family and their travel companions to Florence, Genoa, Verona and Venice. The Molls’ entourage included the photographer and Klimt’s later commissioner Hugo Henneberg, his wife, as well as the artists Wilhelm Legler and Josef Engelhart. Klimt took the trip not only for educational purposes and to derive inspiration but also because he participated in the Venice Biennale, the “III. Esposizione Internazionale d‘Arte della Città di Venezia” [3rd International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice]. He exhibited his works Moving Water (1898, private collection) and Lady in an Armchair (Twilight) (1897/98, private collection). When Moll discovered that Klimt and the young Alma were on the cusp of embarking on a love affair in the lagoon city, the two founding members of the Vienna Secession almost fell out, but were reconciled upon their return to Vienna.

1903: Venice, Ravenna and Lake Garda Debut
Four years later, in the spring and winter of 1903, Klimt visited Italy two more times. In May, he traveled to Venice and Ravenna. The Byzantine art he admired there prompted him to return to Ravenna during a second trip, which lasted from 28 November to 10 December, and included visits to Padua, Florence, Pisa and Mantua. The journey concluded with a visit to Lake Garda.

Klimt was accompanied on this trip by the painter and member of the Vienna Secession Maximilian Lenz. Lenz kept a travel diary, which was published by Wilhelm Dessauer in 1933 in the periodical Österreichische Kunst. In it, he emphatically described Klimt’s “silent, never exuberant” enthusiasm for Ravenna’s cultural sites:

“We have reached Ravenna, the actual destination of our trip; Gustav Klimt’s fateful hour has arrived. For the golden, shimmering mosaics of the churches of Ravenna exert an enormous, decisive influence on him. […] Klimt was truly shaken. He did not say a word, but it was plain to see. […].”

In his reticent manner, Klimt himself mentioned his “very strong artistic impressions” in his correspondence with Emilie Flöge in early December. He further reported that “much of Ravenna” was “very poor,” but that the mosaics, which he was able to study in San Vitale, were “of incredible splendor.” The impact of the golden Byzantine mosaic art is apparent in Klimt’s paintings Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907, Neue Galerie New York, New York) and Portrait of Fritza Riedler (1906, Belvedere, Vienna). His commission for The Stoclet Frieze (1905–1911, private collection), which he received in 1904 for the Brussels Palais Stoclet, was likely also fundamentally inspired by his experience of these mosaics. Ludwig Hevesi further believed that parts of the Faculty Painting Jurisprudence (1903–1907, destroyed in a fire at Immendorf Castle in 1945) recalled “the mosaic paintings created by the Byzantines during what is referred to as the darkness of the Middle Ages.”

1906: Florence
A picture postcard Klimt sent to his sister Johanna “Fanny” Klimt on 7 December 1906 suggests that the artist visited Florence that year, as he sent her greetings “from unfortunately not so sunny Italy.” We do not know the purpose of this trip, but perhaps it had to do with a visit to Villa Romana. In 1905, Max Klinger and the artists’ association Deutscher Künstlerbund considered Klimt for a study stay, lasting a year or six months, at this Florentine accommodation, as a letter from Klinger to Moll documents. However, the genius painter rejected the offer and instead suggested Maximilian Kurzweil take his place in this early form of an “artist-in-residence” program.

1910: Venice
Following Klimt’s first participation in the Venice Biennale in 1899 and a rejected application to feature in the 6th Biennale in 1905, the artist prominently presented his works in a solo exhibition at the 1910 “IX. Esposizione Internazionale d‘Arte della Città di Venezia” [9th International Art Exhibition of the City of Venice]. Likely due to time constraints, Klimt did not travel to Venice to take part in the exhibition set-up or the opening ceremony. In room 10, the artist showcased 22 paintings, including several landscapes inspired by the Attersee and its picturesque environs, as well as The Three Ages of Woman (1905, Galleria Nazionale d‘Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome), Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907, Neue Galerie New York, New York) and the double portrait Friends I (The Sisters) (1907, Klimt-Foundation, Vienna). The painting Judith II (Salome) (1909, Ca‘Pesaro-Galleria Internazionale d‘Arte Moderna, Venice), which was also on display, was subsequently acquired by the municipal gallery of Venice for almost 16,000 crowns (approx. 93,000 euros).

1911: Rome
In late March 1911, Klimt stayed in the Italian capital, residing at the Grand Hotel de Russie. The reason for his visit was the imposing “Internationale Kunstausstellung” [International Art Exhibition of Rome] marking the 50-year anniversary of the unification of Italy. Josef Hoffmann was in charge of the Austrian pavilion and the exhibition design. Klimt presented eight paintings and four drawings, among them Death and Life (Death and Love) (1910/11, reworked: 1912/13, 1916/17, Leopold Museum, Vienna), Jurisprudence (1903–1907, destroyed in a fire at Immendorf Castle in 1945) as well as Portrait of Emilie Flöge (1902/03, Wien Museum, Vienna). While Klimt had originally intended for the work The Three Ages of Woman to be exhibited in Italy once more, this allegory ultimately did not feature in the presentation, perhaps as the artist had already agreed to sell it to the Galleria Nazionale d‘Arte Moderna e Contemporanea. At this exhibition, Klimt received a monetary prize in the amount of 10,000 lire (approx. 58,000 euros). To this day, it has not been possible to ascertain which of the exhibited paintings earned him this prize.

1913: Lake Garda
Two years later, Klimt and the Flöge family traveled to Italy one last time, likely at the invitation of the Zuckerkandl family, from 31 July to 10 September 1913. This time, the artist stayed at Lake Garda. The traveling party probably resided at the inn Albergo Morandi in Tremosine or at Villa Gruber (now Hotel Bellevue San Lorenzo) in Dosso di Ferri on the peninsula Val di Sogno. The surrounding countryside and picturesque cities nestled along the lakeshore inspired the artist’s only non-Austrian landscapes: Italian Garden Landscape (1913, Kunsthaus Zug, Stiftung Sammlung Kamm), Church in Cassone on Lake Garda (1913, private collection) and Malcesine on Lake Garda (1913, whereabouts unknown, lost since the end of the War in 1945). Klimt returned to Vienna via Tyrol and the Attersee.

1914: Rome
To date, no source material has surfaced to confirm Klimt’s presence at the “II. Esposizione Internationale d‘Arte della Secessione” [2nd International Art Exhibition of the Secession] which opened in February 1914 at the Palazzo d‘Esposizione in Rome. We do know, however, that room 4 – designed by Dagobert Peche featuring segment-like drapery elements and reserved to members of the Austrian Artists’ League – included Klimt’s painting Portrait of Mäda Primavesi (1913, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), thus proving yet another presentation of the artist’s work in Italy.

Literature and sources

  • Ludwig Hevesi: Acht Jahre Sezession (März 1897–Juni 1905). Kritik – Polemik – Chronik, Vienna 1906.
  • Christian M. Nebehay (Hg.): Gustav Klimt. Dokumentation, Vienna 1969.
  • Stephan Koja (Hg.): Gustav Klimt. Landschaften, Ausst.-Kat., Upper Belvedere (Vienna), 23.10.2002–23.02.2003, Munich 2002, S. 116-117.
  • Alfred Weidinger: Die Landschaften, in: Alfred Weidinger (Hg.): Gustav Klimt, Munich - Berlin - London - New York 2007, S. 140-173.
  • Tobias G. Natter, Franz Smola, Peter Weinhäupl (Hg.): Klimt persönlich. Bilder – Briefe – Einblicke, Ausst.-Kat., Leopold Museum (Vienna), 24.02.2012–27.08.2012, Vienna 2012, S. 219-226, S. 279-284.
  • Stefan Lehner: Ausstellungen. Gustav Klimt und Josef Hoffmann, in: Agnes Husslein-Arco, Alfred Weidinger (Hg.): Gustav Klimt – Josef Hoffmann. Pioniere der Moderne, Ausst.-Kat., Lower Belvedere (Vienna) - Upper Belvedere (Vienna), 25.10.2011–04.03.2012, Munich 2011, S. 274-285.
  • Sandra Tretter, Peter Weinhäupl: I viaggi in Italia di Klimt: una fonte di ispirazione per la sua arte, in: Maria Vittoria Marini Clarelli (Hg.): Klimt. La Secessione e l’Italia, Museo di Roma, Ausst.-Kat., Museo di Roma (Rome), 27.10.2021–27.03.2022, Rome 2022, S. 17-33.
  • Ansichtskarte von Gustav Klimt in Malcesine am Gardasee an Anna Klimt in Wien (09/10/1913). GKA40.
  • Brief von Max Klinger in Florenz an Carl Moll (11/01/1905).
  • Brief von Max Klinger an Carl Moll (before January 1905).
  • Ansichtskarte von Gustav Klimt in Ravenna an Emilie Flöge in Wien (12/02/1903).
  • Brief von Gustav Klimt in Venedig an Anna und Ernest Klimt sen. in Wien (06/08/1890). GKA42.
  • Wilhelm Dessauer: Gustav Klimts Winterreise nach Italien. Unveröffentlichte Erinnerungen des Malers Lenz, mitgeteilt von Wilhelm Dessauer, in: Österreichische Kunst, 4. Jg., Heft 3 (1933), S. 11-12.