Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: The Ten Largest by Hilma af Klint

Jinnie Stork 15 January 2024 min Read

Hilma af Klint was a Swedish abstract artist who was way ahead of her time. She might just be the first abstract painter in Western modern art history but did not get recognition until just recently. Lately, there have been several exhibitions of her work; for example, at Moderna Museet in Stockholm and Malmö, Sweden. Hilma af Klint’s The Ten Largest is iconic and has lately been shown all over the world, most notably at Tate Modern in London and a couple of years ago at Guggenheim Museum in New York. It is one of her most important works, and the large scale of the paintings is quite striking.

Hilma af Klint (1862–1944) started as a landscape and portrait painter after graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm in 1887. During her career, she also had an interest in the spiritual world—an interest she later employed in her art. According to the artist, she received messages from the spirits telling her what and how to paint.

The Ten Largest is a group of works comprising ten 10,76 x 7,87 ft (328 x 240 cm) egg tempera paintings. The paintings depict the spiritual evolution of humans, taking us from childhood, through youth, and adulthood to old age. Let’s take a closer look at the history and the meaning of The Ten Largest

The Ten Largest: Installation view on Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photograph by Jenni Carter @AGNSW

Installation view on Hilma af Klint: The Secret Paintings exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Photograph by Jenni Carter @AGNSW

History of the Paintings

Hilma af Klint took precise notes on her work with The Ten Largest, and therefore we know a lot of the meaning and how to understand the paintings through her notebooks. The Ten Largest is part of a larger series of artwork called Paintings for the Temple, a series she was assigned from the spiritual world. We know, from Hilma af Klint’s notes, that there were more spirits involved in the assignment, whom she called “The High Masters.” She saw herself as a channel between the spiritual world and this world.

Af Klint painted The Ten Largest during a 40-day period in 1907, and the spirits were very specific with the timeline. They told her to paint each painting in four days, following each other, which she completed with help from at least two friends. She created the paintings swiftly and spontaneously, with little planning. She completed the whole series in 40 days.  

The Meaning

The paintings depict the evolution of human consciousness and the spiritual evolution of the human mind. Each painting should be interpreted as a phase in life. Hilma af Klint was very interested in spiritualism, which was not uncommon in the early 20th century, especially in the cultural circles. The paintings were supposed to give humanity images of life beyond everything, which were not visible otherwise. However, when Hilma af Klint searched for a suitable place to exhibit and show the world these beautiful abstract paintings, she did so in vain. In 1932 she decided that since the world was not ready to take part in and understand the spiritual messages in her paintings, most of her artwork and her notebooks were to be kept from the public for 20 years. 

Let’s have a closer look at this evolution of human aging, through the four different stages depicted in The Ten Largest.



The two first paintings in the series represent childhood. These two works have a blue background. They also depict Hilma af Klint’s fascination with duality. She described in her notebooks two principles in the spiritual world. These principals were not to be understood as opposites but as something forming a whole together. In these paintings describing childhood, we see a lot of individual shapes forming pairs. According to the artist herself, the lily and the color blue represented the feminine principle, and the rose and the color yellow symbolized the masculine principle. We can see a lot of organic forms and shapes in all of The Ten Largest. Furthermore, in the paintings representing childhood, we see a lot of forms associated with plants and vegetation.



In the two paintings representing youth, we see a more vibrant orange background. The shapes and lines show more energy and more movement in these than the other phases. Here we also have a lot of blue and yellow, representing the female and male principles. There is also the egg form, and a lot of spirals and seashells. 



The four paintings representing adulthood have a light purple background. The organic shapes are similar not only to flowers, plants, seeds, and eggs, but some of them look like fruits and vegetables. The lines in these paintings form letters, but they lack any literary meaning. The letters can be seen as signs and symbols, and different combinations give them meaning beyond words. 

Old Age


The last two paintings of this series have a light pink background and represent old age. The organic forms are more symmetric and square. The colors are paler and analogous. The lack of contrast makes the painting blend out. The colors are more harmonious and there is not so much movement in the Old Age paintings. They carry more geometric shapes, and the shapes are more systematically arranged than the other paintings in the series. There is a sense of calmness in these paintings. 


Geometric and Organic Shapes

Though this is a series of abstract paintings, created much earlier than abstraction was a concept in modern art, we recognize many of the shapes. They are mostly organic, or look like letters, and the duality exists in all of the ten paintings. Hilma af Klint’s interests were not limited to spiritualism. She lived in a time of scientific discovery, and her interest in such studies as biology is visible in her choices of shapes in her artwork. We see a lot of this in The Ten Largest, mainly in the depiction of the organic shapes. In her artwork she tried to combine science with faith. 

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