Gustave Klimt—“There is no self-portrait of me”

Gustave Klimt, an Austrian painter who offered a notable vision of experimental art to Vienna during the formative years of the late 19th and early 20th century avant-garde.  Klimt was an extraordinary painter of landscapes and figural compositions who also excelled at portraits.  Unlike Rembrandt and Vincent, Klimt was not enamored with his personal image and, as a consequence, there are no known self-portraits done by this artist.  In letters Klimt tells us the following about his perception of himself:  There is nothing that special to see when looking at me.  I’m a painter who paints day in and day out, from morning till evening…”  Fortunately for posterity, Klimt lived at a time where we have the benefit of images of the artist  through photography.  Apparently Klimt was a man of few words who would rather communicate through his work than in written form.  Klimt explains, “Even when I have to write a simple letter I’m scared stiff as if faced with looming seasickness.”  But Klimt could paint and draw and through those two mediums Klimt left us a rich tableau of communication by being an artist.  Klimt admonishes us to look carefully at his paintings for therein we will see the artist!  “Whoever wants to know something about me—as an artist which alone is significant—they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognize what I am and what I want.”

What are your thoughts about Klimt’s aversion to self-portraits within the matrix of his ability to paint and draw strong figural works of experimental art?

Photograph of Gustave Klimt

Photograph of Gustave Klimt

Gustave Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-08

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.

30 Comments

30 thoughts on “Gustave Klimt—“There is no self-portrait of me””

  1. I actually can relate to him quite well. Although I considered myself more talkative then Klimt, I still feel like my voice is overlooked somehow. I feel like I cannot explain everything, no matter how heard I try. I am a loner. A lot of artists consider themselves loners. I wish he could have interpreted himself through his art in some way. He is skilled in his craft. I lean towards figures when looking at or making art myself. My favorite Klimt piece hands down is The Kiss. It happens to be my wallpaper on my phone when I send or receive text messages. Its such a tender, delicate moment. I bet if Klimt really loved another person, this is how he would express himself in reality, if he lets his guard down. It was really amazing to see one of Klimt’s pieces in the Bellagio, back when the Town and Country exhibition was up.
    I myself also dislike making self portraits. I see myself in the mirror everyday. Some days I see myself and say, “Hey you” to the mirror. Other days, my response is “Eww”. I have been forcing myself to make self portraits recently, not only to get out of my comfort zone, but also pick myself apart so I can have a bit more self respect. If Klimt ever made any portraits of himself, that energy would be twice as strong and prevalent as any other portrait he has made. It would definitely have a stronger presence than a photography, I’m sure. This must have been an interesting time period to be in, with photography being a fresh medium in the art world. I think Klimt might have considered himself a loner too because of this time period. Its not as open-minded as it is today. But even now, with access to technology and all of the world’s knowledge, one can still feel just as alone as ever. That is why, as artists, whatever we lack, we must make up for and show these feelings within our artwork. Only then will people start to understand. I understand his aversion to self portraits. I too, would rather let the figures in my artwork speak for themselves.

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  2. Gustave Klimt had an interesting view about self-portraits that I feel marked a shift in the overall perception of artists and their image. Klimt thought of himself as a hard worker, not a celebrity. His ideas reflect a new belief that an artist’s work is much more important than himself or his personal image. Instead, he wanted the focus to be on the manifestation of his exploration and thinking through his paintings. I think this is what he meant by “look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognize what I am and what I want.”. This wanting refers to his tendency to take what he saw in the world and transform it through the use of colors, patterns, and shapes into something that only he could see. The offering of this unique perspective is ultimately what made Klimt a modern painter and I think he believed this as well. I think that myself and many other artists can relate to the way Klimt felt, we often feel most comfortable communicating through our art and the things we create rather than writing or even speaking.

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  3. Hard to say since I have never heard of this guy before. However, after reading a bit of information, I am surprised that there are not any self portraits of him. Usually artists have their self portraits, but Gustav has a different opinion on it. He does make a good point when describing it as self portraits are not much special since it’s just a drawing or a painting of one’s self. Of course, one could argue that a self portrait makes part of a profile of a person. Others can say artists can be recognized by the pictures they draw.

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  4. I feel as if Klimt was making a statement regarding the artist and their self image. When I see a self portrait of an artist, I see that artist trying to figure out who they are. I see that artist picking themselves apart, dissecting themselves through their forms and color choices. It’s like Klimt is saying “see the real me through my work, not through a self portrait.” That, I believe is what he means behind his statement “whoever wants to know something about me—as an artist which alone is significant—they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognize what I am and what I want.” You can see the true artist through his work, you do not need a self portrait to know and understand the artist. Its profound because he is moving away from something that seems to be quite popular in the art field, as you can see self portraits throughout the history of art.
    If he had decided to do a self portrait, I do not think we would know that it was a self portrait unless it was titled as such. He has a strong sense of figures but at the same time they are full of emotion and abstract. I feel as if, he would have done a self portrait that would remind us of Picasso. Creating something strong yet abstract, not easily recognizable subjects. I love the statement he makes “There is nothing that special to see when looking at me,” he is trying to convey that what is special is how he sees the world and how that world translates onto his paintings. He does not want you to observe him through a self portrait but to observe the world the way he sees it, through his eyes. It is a very interesting and refreshing way to look at the world and see the world, and force others to see that world as well.

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  5. It is apparent that he wanted us to focus on his art, not the artist (himself). I believe he wanted people to really grasp his artwork for who he is and not be seen. To not let his self image determine his artwork. It is smart in a way which you kind of lead the path way for the audience wanting to know more. Personally if there was no photo that was given, I would look at all his artwork to see if I can catch some sort of hidden image of himself within his work. You can in fact get to know someone by their sense of style and brushstrokes. Pablo Picasso for example, his style is know because it is his, unique and bold. He did several self portraits of himself and the one done in 1907 is not exactly expressing realism. But because we are familiar with his sense of style, we know it is him.

    I’m glad Klimt didn’t do a self portrait. I appreciate the decision he made and explained why he chose not to. His artwork definitely speaks for him through him. Emotionally involved and expressive would best describe “The Kiss”. The colors alone speaks volume and brings my attention to the center immediately. Would of been nice though to maybe see a possible sketch of a self portrait to see how he would of done it. But we must respect the artist decision

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  6. I feel as though Klimt is one of the artist who not only want the art to speak for itself, but also for the artists. I can see this being an issue if the art doesn’t necessary speak for the artists, but it makes a statement for the topic. However, it is understandable why he wants to use art to have a voice. These days it can be hard or easy to have a voice. It’s all about finding your audience. Sometimes it’s hard to find the words for ones thoughts and views.

    There is a possibility that Klimt had anxiety which made it harder for him to express himself with words. I can see many people relating to that today. A lot of people use the internet to find their voice; or to have someone listen to it. Those same people may have trouble communicating in real life. “The Kiss” looks to be an example of something that really catches your eye because of all the warm colors.

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  7. I believe I understand why he didn’t make any self-portraits. I think a variety of factors could’ve contributed to that. A lot of his paintings are decorative and show beauty/sexual appeal. Perhaps if he painted a self-portrait, he’d let his perceptions of himself get in the way of something more true. Or maybe, he knew exactly who he was and didn’t need to express that to himself through a painting. I personally have a hard time drawing self-portraits. I find that while I’m creating it, I think something similar to, “Well, my nose isn’t THAT big,” or something like, “Ok, my complexion isn’t THAT perfect.” I constantly feel like changing it, because I think of myself a certain way. I see myself everyday.
    I would like to paint a self-portrait soon just to see what I’m seeing in the mirror. I think self-portraits can be very important to look at. You discover so much as you’re creating them.

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  8. I have an admiration for Klimt’s feelings towards self-portraits. He wanted people to judge him based on his art rather than his own looks. He didn’t feel it necessary for him to put himself into his paintings and drawings. He probably could have easily painted himself, but maybe he didn’t feel that was how people wanted to perceived him based on his looks. He even said his work shows people what he is and what he wanted them to see. Rather than knowing what he looked like, he wanted his audience to see what he saw through his own eyes.

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  9. I feel like finding out that Klimt has a fear of expressing himself, whether it’s through portraits, talking, or writing, but is able to successfully communicate through his art only makes me like him more. I can definitely see why he feels scared to speak or write, especially about himself, because I feel the same way. It’s always interesting to see an artist’s self portrait because it gives the viewer insight into how the artist feels about himself. However, the fact that Klimt refused to make a self portrait also gives the viewer insight into how he feels about himself. He said himself that there is nothing that special to see when looking at him, so maybe he thinks there wouldn’t be anything interesting about his self portrait.

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  10. I can agree with most of the posts here that maybe Gustave Klimt didn’t care much about self portraits. He wanted his art to speak for itself and not for us to focus so much on him. The painting The Kiss for example shows that he has a unique sense of storytelling through his painting. I can respect him as an artist for his decision of not doing any self-portraits. Even if I was a great painter, I would not want to do any self-portraits. I would want people to focus on my actual art. like he said, “Whoever wants to know something about me—as an artist which alone is significant—they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognize what I am and what I want.” pretty much sums up what I would do since I would rather communicate through my art.

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  11. With Gustave Klimt, he was a person that I already felt that wasn’t a person who wasn’t expressive about himself so much. When it comes to work such as portraits, verbally or commutatively interacting and of course actual expressing himself it not so much a impacting role he takes part. What I see that was most effective was how he communicated through is works of art, which I find most interesting on how he let his art speak than himself. As viewing his aspects and characteristics I can see obviously, he was scared to verbally communicate especially when it came to himself. Since everyone can have similar qualities that he feels, he is not alone. I find it interesting to view artists commence a self-portrait since it pushes off a mood and sense of how the artist feels, like a reflection upon how they feel about themselves. But when Gustave Klimt refused to create a self-portrait pushes of a sense that the viewer on how he actually feels about himself as a person.

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  12. As a painter, I feel that Klimpt was right when saying that he should be known through his art rather than by his face or images of himself. To me portraits in general are very intimate, so for a painter like Klimpt, whose style is iconic, I think it was more important to show the world how he saw it rather than let the world see him through something as intimate as a self-portrait. Sometimes what you have to reflect to the world is more important and reflects yourself better than attempting a self-portrait. Since a self-portrait is intimate and introspective, it might also be that Klimpt thought of self-portraits as misguiding and leaving too much room for preconceived notions about the artist. I think it was smart of him not to get caught up in the vanity of portraiture, because perhaps he did not want to lose the pieces of himself that it would have cost to put in each of those paintings.

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  13. I feel as though his aversion to self portraits is understandable, people often carry this ideal image of themselves and who they perceive themselves to be, rather than what is in front of them. I can see why he might feel as though his true identity can be found through his work rather through an interpretation of his image. How he saw the world, and rendered his work, is more true to who he is as a person or an artist than how he painted his own portrait. I also think it is a concept that will resonate with many of us, that what if the image we create doesn’t align with the truth of what we all see. Maybe he felt as though his work was a better representation of how he saw himself, rather than his own image.

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  14. I can agree with Klimpt’s view of self portraits. I find it admirable that he wanted people to judge his work, rather than his physical image. By focusing on his work the viewer can create their own interpretation of not only Klimpt’s character, but his beliefs as well. Self portraits are important in the sense that it allows an audience to see how an artist interprets themselves. In the end I think it depends on whether you want to be known for your image or your work.

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  15. I can relate to Klimt in that I think we have our own aversions. For Klimt, to paint yourself is to say to others “this is how I see me,” which really isn’t much to say. He is ok with photographs, but that might be because a photo pose is quicker and harder to misrepresent. I, however, think photography is another medium, so I prefer to be behind the camera and I don’t need an image beyond my person to represent myself.

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  16. As cliche as it sounds, I do believe an artist’s work is a reflection of themselves. Many artists including myself use art as a platform to convey genuine emotions, thoughts, dreams, etc. because it’s easier to express yourself through this platform without being judged or ridiculed. I say this in the sense that art is subjective or “in the eye of the beholder” it can mean a million different things to others that are completely different from the artist’s intent. But that’s what’s so great about art, you can redirect all your feelings into something and the viewer can either choose to figure it out or not, Klimt decided to use his ability to express himself through his work because that’s what he felt most comfortable doing. In turn it allows his audience to focus on his work rather than the artist. I think in that sense, he’s opening himself up to the public way more than if he were just to create a self portrait.

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  17. In terms of how Klimt feels about being self portraits, an artist’s work is a reflection of themselves. I can see that Klimt would want a viewer to focus solely on the artwork and subtract the artist themselves, but it can be a difficult topic considering the vision, the idea, and the work is all from the artist and that is where the credit really comes in. Especially with how he mentions, “Whoever wants to know something about me—as an artist which alone is significant—they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognize what I am and what I want”…I feel that the work itself is a reflection of the artist, which can be frustrating since he wants to separate the two. This can be a little strange but I feel that what we do and how we function is almost like a self portrait. How we chose our tasks, what to wear, how to think about this, is also just the same as creating art. How we certainly produce something tells something about ourselves. His work, and the narratives he puts behind it shows what he’s interested in and the certain style that others perceive.

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  18. I do not think that self-portraits are necessary to include in a body of work. I think it’s more important to include interpretations of the ordinary in unconventional ways. For this reason, I find Klimt’s comments on information about himself very intriguing. It causes viewers to dive deeper into his work and analyze his paintings from a blank slate point of view. His ability to depict strong figural works of art doesn’t necessarily derive from studies of his own form. I believe it is possible to see representations of the artist in every single piece of work, therefore making any piece a self-portrait in loose terms.

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  19. The artist and the art is unified in a harmonious rhythm, like lyrics to a melody, a translation of a self into the physical, the intangible that responds and reflects emotions, thoughts and sensations filtered through the vessel, the shell. Klimt proposes an engaging invitation to contemplate the essence of the being, the substance that allows us to be individual and unique; the state in which there is no boundaries, no limitations, no governing restraints. If what one thinks is to be interpreted into what one says, an idealistic notion, then the thought expressed into an alternative medium most certainly defines the individual. In this way, the self portrait becomes the portrayal of the self, in thought and emotion.

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  20. What is interesting about the concept of communicating through a medium; whether it be art, music, performance, the clothes you wear, or even the makeup you put on, there is an idea of control that is being made. Although Klimt did not give himself that much self worth as a person, he is speaking to his being as being decorated by being lavish in color and form. There is a sense of truth to his work as his alter ego that is found in his work is his way of showing the world what he is not confident to speak or show in his own physical form. As an artist, I understands very well that there are somethings that can only be communicated through pictures that words cannot describe and that is the emotional and spiritual relationships that individuals form. Klimt was aware of this as well and because of this he wanted to control the relationships he had with people to be reserved for the meaningful and powerful experiences that one gets from his work and thus gets from him.

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  21. I think that Klimt’s aversion to self-portraits is interesting and understandable. A self-portrait tells the audience how an artist perceives themselves, but does not reveal how they perceive the world and those around them. Klimt was able to, and still continues to, communicate with spectators through the paintings he created. Through his works, we can see how he viewed the world around him. He expressed himself in these paintings and I think that in doing so, we are able to see bits and pieces of Klimt, both as an artist and as a person.

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  22. Klimt’s statement simply reflects a matter of preference and I feel like as an artist you know what best represents or portrays you within art. Considering he composes many figural works, I actually wouldn’t expect him to like making a self-portrait. It forces you to look deep into his artwork and the different figures to see what characteristics he finds similar or symbolic of himself. Not everyone sees themselves in the same way it is mirrored which leads you to think if that if he did make a self-portrait, would it truly look like him?

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  23. I believe Klimt’s views on self-portraits is something I can understand and relate to. Art is the reflection of the artist’s mind and it can explain everything that words possibly cannot. Rather than communicating through words, Klimt could communicate better through a different medium. Through creating art, it can reflect how the artist views the world. I feel that it is similar to my views on art. I don’t like showing my face either because I feel there is no reason to. In my opinion, I believe some people can enjoy viewing art, but as soon as there is a face to who did the work their opinions change. It shouldn’t matter what the artist looks like, but instead their abilities to create.

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  24. Gustave Klimt comes off as a humble and modest painter that would rather be seen and understood through his works rather than self-portraits. I could relate to him and agree with this sentiment because I believe there’s a better sense of understanding that is deeper and more personal, through an artists work. I believe a self-portrait is like the surface of that artist. You learn more about them through their style and the subject of their works.
    Gustav’s paintings are very spiritual and require the viewer to look closely and examine them for interpretation. He is very memorable to me for his perception of the human body and how he depicts it.

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  25. I don’t think it’s surprising that Klimt had an aversion to painting self-portraits. He was an incredibly talented artist but didn’t feel that a depiction of himself would represent him as well as any of his works.

    “Whoever wants to know something about me—as an artist which alone is significant—they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognize what I am and what I want.” Klimt knew that to truly understand the artist you had to look beyond the artist as a figure and into their work to see their soul. He wasn’t concerned with celebrity or what people thought of him as an artist, he knew that the most important aspect was the art itself.

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  26. Klimt, during his career as an artist painted many portraits, most of them women. Klimt painted them in various states of undress or nudity. Klimt said “… I am less interested in myself as a subject for painting than I am in other people, above all women.” Klimt was a lifelong bachelor who had many affairs during his life, frequently with his models and he also was father of 14 children. He definitely had more interest for women why wasting time focusing on himself? I respect and admire Klimt’s decision of not painting a self portrait. Seems like at that time every artist made a self portrait. Everybody has the right to do what they think is the best for themselves. In his case he wasn’t comfortable making a self portrait. Maybe that’s the reason of his uniqueness as an artist. Gustav Klimt didn’t follow other artists, he had his own unique and different style of art.

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  27. I really like Gustave Klimt’s approach of communicating through your work rather than words. It kind of reminds you of a humblebrag situation. It let’s your work do the talking for you, which I think is pretty smart and you could even avoid problems or any verbal confrontations with just talking with your work. I think that Klimt just had anxiety when dealing with people, which I could completely understand. Art was like a coping mechanism for him.

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  28. I like Gustave Klimt’s art works and how he approach to art and his way to approach. He had different view or way to art and that should be really hard. I liked that he painted sultry women and gold painting and vibrant colors and his actual theme of art are really different with anyone else. Sex, love and death are the topics that not so many artists did it at the time but how he developed his own art style and how he did not paint his self portrait. Use of gold color made him to be “golden artist”.

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  29. I think Klimt had his chosen way of expressing himself. There are different forms of communication and where he saw his lacking ability to write, he was equally stronger in his visual communication. He chose his for of expression and like any artist, in order to fully understand him or her, you must look at their art. Because there is where they lay out the full definition of who they are as individuals. His abilities as a strong figural artist speaks a lot to the person his was and the hard work he put into his work day in and day out to create what he though was his true voice.

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  30. Klimt makes a great point when telling his audience to look to his work to understand what he is about rather than creating a self-portrait of himself. He is known for having a strong passion for the female body and not so much the male body which could also be another factor as to why he averted from doing a self-portrait. With his work being so experimental, one could make the assumption that Klimt was an innovator or a risk taker which is probably all he wanted to me known by.

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