Masterpiece Stories

Gustav Klimt’s Last Painting – Lady with a Fan

Giordana Goretti 17 September 2023 min Read

Since its creation, at the end of Gustav Klimt’s life, Lady with a Fan was controversial. The piece was shown to the public only three times, causing public outcry because of its erotically charged subject. This once-controversial painting has recently sold for over $108.4 million dollars.

Gustav Klimt, Lady with Fan, 1917-1918, private collection. Photograph by Markus Guschelbauer via Belvedere.
Gustav Klimt, Lady with a Fan, 1917-1918, private collection. Photograph by Markus Guschelbauer via Belvedere.

Journey of the Portrait

The Austrian Modernist Gustav Klimt completed the canvas Lady with Fan in 1918 at the age of 55. That same year, this celebrated, controversial artist died. Below, you can see a picture of his study as he left it. On the right-hand side, resting on the easel in the stillness of the room, we can unmistakably spot the elegant portrait we are talking about. The photograph was taken by the painter’s friend and fellow Viennese Secessionist, Moritz Nähr.

Moritz Nähr, Klimt's Studio, ca. 1917, Vienna, Austria.

Shortly after Gustav Klimt’s death, art collector Rudolf Leopold acquired Lady with Fan and exhibited it at the Kunstschau, an innovative cultural site in the center of Vienna, in 1920. After this public appearance, the same art collector then sold the painting. This vibrant portrait was never actually “lost”. It did not vanish, nor was stolen. The canvas has been shown again to the public just two times: in 1981 in Tokyo and in 1992 in Krakow. After more than 100 years away from the Viennese public, in 2021, this relatively unknown painting finally returned to the Upper Belvedere in Vienna. 

Gustav Klimt's Lady with Fan on display, Michael Huey and Christian Witt-Dörring Photo Archive, Vienna, Austria. Photograph by Erwin Böhler via Belvedere.
Gustav Klimt’s Lady with a Fan on Display, Michael Huey and Christian Witt-Dörring Photo Archive, Vienna, Austria. Photograph by Erwin Böhler via Belvedere.

Style and Influences

As the ordinary and the material became the favorite subjects of Realist artists, Europe saw the light of a Romantic counter-movement, which also harbored the Viennese Secessionists. The Romantics did not share the Realists’ fascination for sooty bolts and fiery furnaces. A lady surrounded by flowers was all they could possibly desire and aim to represent, as the study of the female body has always overlapped with the study of beauty.

Klimt juxtaposed the elegant figure of a beautiful lady with more decorative textures of wallpaper, robe, and fan. It is a rather dazzling design in full Japonisme and Art Nouveau style. The woman is painted in front of a ravishing wallpaper with Chinese good-fortune symbols: the Chinese phoenix (fenghuang), a golden pheasant, a crane, and the lotus flower.

The theme of a lady with a fan is also a Japanese influence. It is known that Gustav Klimt collected Japanese bijin-ga portraits as a part of his extensive collection of Asian artifacts. This genre of woodblock portraits aimed to emphasize the sitter’s beauty, featuring attractive women, often holding uchiwa fans.

Gustav Klimt, Lady with Fan, 1917-1918, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, Austria. Museum's website. 
Gustav Klimt, Lady with a Fan, 1917-1918, private collection. Photograph by Markus Guschelbauer via Belvedere. Detail.

Composition

The composition of this painting is very simple indeed. A slender female figure, elegant, elongated, and embellished with what looks like prime oriental fabric stands alone in the framed space. She holds a fan, hiding her partial nudity. By the look on her face, we can say with enough confidence that her intention is to tease the viewer, rather than be a prude. There are no further elements depicted here. Just her, her robe leaving her glorious shoulder out, her fan barely concealing her left breast and a wall. Yet, one could hardly say that the surroundings seem bare and empty…

As far as vibrancy goes, it would be hard to find better-equipped wallpaper! Behind our whimsical brunette, there is a triumph of a garden: huge flowers blooming and exotic birds taking flight and perching majestically in the pasty yellow-ochre density of the background.

exhibition view, Gustav Klimt's Lady with Fan
Exhibition view of Lady with a Fan: Gustav Klimt’s Last Works in Upper Belvedere, 2021- 2022, Upper Belvedere, Vienna, Austria. Photograph by Johannes Stoll via Belvedere.

A Scandalous Artist

Klimt created very erotic images, according to the sensitivity of the public at the time. As we look at our Lady with a Fan, we know we have seen “worse” and wouldn’t think it is indecent. But if you consider the havoc caused by showing a little too much skin, a bare shoulder and a breast covered with a fan may be considered controversial. This captivating woman enjoyed the perks of anonymity, as critics have established that she probably was a dancer.

 

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