Gustav Klimt: Portrait of Hermine Gallia 1904
London, National Gallery
Klimt is sometimes dismissed as merely a decorative artist — implying membership of some sort of sub-category operating below the exalted levels of ‘great’ art. But his landscapes and his erotic drawings speak otherwise, as do his portraits. It is true that the women (for they are nearly all women) in his portraits are invariably depicted against decorative backgrounds which are not explicitly three-dimensional. Indeed, in a famous example, the first of his two portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the sitter’s body and dress are dissolved in a swirl of stunning golden decoration. But this does not detract from the skill with which Klimt teased out the essentials of the personality and character of his sitters even though they have to compete for attention with his sumptuous backgrounds or with the elaborate dresses which Klimt delighted in further elaborating. And so it is with his Portrait of Hermine Gallia.
Hermine’s head is held slightly to one side, she looks out at the viewer through limpid eyes, a certain melancholy pervading her features. Compared to the profusion of gold leaf used in his later portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer or the richly coloured backgrounds of his last portraits, he is relatively subdued is his choice of colouring for this picture. There is a hint of space behind the figure, the carpet pattern seems to be shown in perspective but even so we are not at all sure how Hermine fits into the space. She is dressed in a truly fabulous confection; unfortunately we may not be seeing the true colours chosen by Klimt — the pigments in this picture have degraded over the years. Nevertheless, we can see what a tour de force this exotic creation must have been.
Klimt’s portraits have a dual function — they are profoundly satisfying records of elegant women from the first two decades of twentieth-century Vienna but they also often function as semi-abstract exercises exploring the use of colour and pattern. Above all they are ravishingly beautiful.
1904 Pierre Auguste Renoir: Portrait of Misia Sert, London, National Gallery
1904 Henri Matisse: Luxe, Calme et Volupté, Paris, Musée d’Orsay
1905 Pablo Picasso: Saltimbanques, Washington, National Gallery of Art