Gustav Klimt was one of those artists who pushed boundaries. He wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last, to have such an agenda. However, in my opinion, Klimt had more in mind than to merely push the boundaries of art itself. After all, what is art without a conversation with the onlooker? Moreover, what effect should art have on the very people who are the subjects of one’s work? I believe that Klimt painstakingly put effort into seeing the truth of his portrait sitters, who, oftentimes, were his clients. In studying his portrait works, we can take away key self-confidence lessons from Gustav Klimt and from his subjects.
Let’s take a look at three paintings for some key self-confidence lessons.
Portrait of Johanna Staude, 1917
This portrait is my most favorite of the bunch, maybe because I think that I relate to the portrait sitter. Johanna Staude wore a colorful and patterned blouse as a form of exuberant self-expression. On top of that, her hairstyle was trend-setting. She was right on time for herself, but ahead of the fashion curve in Vienna in 1917. Klimt catches her looking straight on at him.
The message here is blatant self-confidence. Moreover, it is about owning a sense of independence. If you feel that looking modern and distinctive is the best way to represent yourself, then be that way unapologetically.
Portrait of Gertrud Loew, 1902
In 2015, this spectacular portrait was sold at auction for $39 million. Gertrud Loew was a mere 19 years old when Klimt painted her, as commissioned by her celebrated physician father. In Klimt’s gaze, it appears that the young Gertrud had a wisdom and maturity that belied her age. If true, that self-possession of wisdom would surely have come to serve her as her life unfolded.
Married at age 20, she had and lost a baby, and even her brief marriage fell apart. After putting her life back together, she married an industrialist with whom she had three children. He died after a short bout of pneumonia. 16 years later, under Nazi rule, she fled Vienna for safe harbor. Not allowed to disembark in the United States, despite her son living here already, she journeyed to Columbia. Finally, she arrived in the United States in 1940. Eventually, she lived in Menlo Park, CA until her death in 1964.
As I have seen with young clients, they, too, have visible gifts and strengths. Although I do not paint them, I want to empower them with what I see. When we are young, we don’t always know or appreciate our gifts and strengths. But, if we can know them and tap into them, we may just survive life’s challenges and manage to thrive. I see that in Gertrud Loew’s eyes.
The Black-Feathered Hat, 1910
This painting is known as a departure from Klimt’s more typically complex paintings. The palette is monochromatic, the fingers are highly stylized. Here, we look at this painting and can easily connect with its emotional intent. That enormous black hat was so big that Klimt didn’t want it all to fit into the portrait he painted. Like a huge black bird, or like billowing smoke, it starkly contrasts to the rest of the painting. Except, that is, for her eyebrows.
She looks very stylish, but her style is very connected to her emotions. The painting is a masterwork, to be sure. But, the connection between emotion and style is my biggest take away. Style conveys emotion, but it can also transform it. Be in the mood you are in, or put on something to change the mood altogether.
All in all, I took away these key self-confidence lessons from the works of Gustav Klimt. First, own your sense of independence. Second, regardless of your age, it’s a gift to grow into yourself and to let that show. And, finally, as emotions flow through you, allow yourself the chance to express them through your style. Interestingly, these are big lessons that are a daily part of the support I offer to clients. Often, we require permission to be ourselves because we live in a world where we are told to be other than who we are. When we can finally honor who we truly are, we are self-confident, and we radiate this from the inside out.
p.s. You might wonder why I don’t show examples of “real people” and explain stories like these. It’s because my clients enjoy their privacy and I respect that. Sometimes, I tell their stories without revealing their identities. Their stories inspire and teach me. But, I can also say that the same is true of art. Our mutual connection to art is a bit more even, as compared to whether or not you know my clients. Art is a perfectly excellent medium by which to demonstrate guiding principles and inspire you to be your best self.