On 14th February, it will be Valentine’s Day: by tradition, the date when lovers express their romantic feelings, sending cards and gifts to the subject of their affections.
The precise origins of the custom are not entirely clear, but its roots most probably lie in the ancient Roman festival of Lupercalia. Held in mid-February, the festival celebrated the coming of spring, involved fertility rites and the pairing together of couples.
Like many Roman festivals, Lupercalia was eventually replaced by a Christian holy day, and from around the end of the fifth century CE, 14th February came to be the feast day of St Valentine.
Exactly who St Valentine was is the subject of some debate. There are several possible candidates, and different stories of life and martyrdom – all revolving around the common theme of love. What is clear is that by the fourteenth century CE, formal messages called Valentines were being exchanged on this day, and by the sixteenth century CE, commercially printed cards bearing romantic texts and images were in circulation.
Around the world this Valentine’s day, millions of cards will be exchanged, and a good number of them are sure to reproduce one of the best-known and best-loved of all romantic paintings – Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss.
It’s an image that will be familiar to many of us. A pair of lovers at the edge of a flower-strewn meadow are profiled against a backdrop of shimmering gold. Dressed in elaborately decorated robes, the ardent couple (thought by some to be Klimt himself and his friend Emilie Louise Flöge), are in an intimate embrace, their bodies entwined as the man stoops to kiss the upturned face of the woman.
Painted between 1907 and 1908, The Kiss marks the zenith of the Austrian artists ‘Golden Period’. The glittering quality of Klimt’s work from this time was the result of a visit he had made to Italy a few years earlier. While in Ravenna, he was inspired by the dazzling use of gold leaf in the Byzantine mosaics in the church of San Vitale. Returning to Vienna, Klimt began to use gold leaf extensively in his own paintings.
Artists often have a reputation for being romantics, and Klimt was no exception. Although he never married, he adored women once saying, “I am less interested in myself as a subject for painting than I am in other people, above all women”. In his lifetime, he had many lovers and fathered several children.
Klimt’s work was sometimes controversial, and at times he shocked polite Viennese society. Shortly before he began work on The Kiss, he was commissioned to paint a series of ceiling paintings for the Great Hall at the University of Vienna. The work he produced was widely condemned as overtly erotic and never went on display at the University.
Despite – or perhaps because of his reputation, Klimt found a buyer for The Kiss even before it was completed, selling it to the Belvedere Museum of Vienna (where it remains today) for 25,000 crowns – a record figure for a painting sold in Vienna at the time.
Klimt was at the forefront of the Art Nouveau movement when he painted The Kiss. But while it is essentially an Art Nouveau piece, it blends a range of different artistic styles. There are influences from Japanese print in its composition, motifs referencing the Arts and Crafts movement in the patterns on the couple’s robes, while the gold leaf is reminiscent of Byzantine masterpieces and iconic religious works from the Medieval period.
Two years after painting The Kiss, Klimt completed another masterpiece incorporating an embracing couple. The Tree of Life is another work that glows with rich colours and drips with heavy symbolism, taking as its theme the connection between life and death, heaven and earth.
To the right of the main image, at the edge of the tree’s swirling branches, a man and woman reminiscent of the couple in The Kiss hold each other closely.
We can’t be sure who Klimt was representing in these figures, but one interpretation is that they are Adam and Eve; in the Bible, the Tree of Life is located at the centre of the Garden of Eden – the place where Christians believe life originated.
Looking for Love? Look No Further than Our Klimt Collection!
Are you searching for a unique, romantic gift to give to someone you love this Valentine’s Day? Or are you looking to treat yourself by introducing a little romance into your life?
Whether you want to say ‘I love you’ to someone special, to yourself, or to your home, you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for in our collection of products featuring the distinctive designs of Gustav Klimt.
The lovers from The Kiss and The Tree of Life are among the many beautiful reproductions of famous Klimt designs that adorn our collection of handbags, wall hangings and cushions.
Take a look now and fall in love!
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