Study for Shakespeare's Theater / Klimt
In the first part of his career (1880–95), Klimt worked in a style known as Historicism, which was favored in imperial and bourgeois circles. Closely tied to academic practice, Historicism aimed at the detailed and truthful depiction of subjects of history or allegory. Klimt drew extensively as a means of achieving exactness.

In the early 1890s, Klimt moved away from Historicism as he became exposed to international Modern art. True innovation came to him only gradually, and it was by cumulative effect that he became the avant-garde artist that we know today.

The New Burgtheater

In 1857 Emperor Franz Joseph decreed that Vienna's medieval city walls be torn down and replaced by a wide boulevard encircling the city—the Ringstrasse (Ring street)—with lavish new buildings to showcase the glory and bright future of the Hapbsburg Empire. As one of Vienna's most talented and recognized young artists, Klimt executed wall paintings for three of these buildings.

In 1886 Klimt, his brother Ernst, and their colleague Franz Matsch received their first large Viennese commission to create decorations for the New Burgtheater (the imperial-court theater; inaugurated 1888) on the Ringstrasse. The murals would tell the story of theater from antiquity to the 18th century in 10 pictures, of which Klimt painted four. Explore the paintings on the Burgtheater website.
One of the compositions for the New Burgtheater was Shakespeare's Theater, for which Klimt made highly finished studies for the figure of Romeo, including the drawing seen above. These drawings attest to the essential role of drawing in his working process. He drew the contours of Romeo's face with clarity and sensitivity. In the upper register of the page, he was mainly concerned with the visual effect of perspective—or foreshortening—on the model's tilted head.

Klimt spared no effort to make his compositions historically correct. He had his models wear period costumes and depicted them carefully in highly finished drawings with clear contours and fine shading that demonstrated how well he had assimilated his academic training. His work for the New Burgtheater was a breakthrough for his practice as a draftsman. In attempting to tackle such new themes with accuracy, he intensified his focus on the human figure.

Reclining Maenad / Klimt
The image above is a preparatory study for the New Burgtheater composition The Altar of Dionysos. It depicts a Maenad, a female follower of Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, ritual ecstasy, and theater. The sleepy figure is charged with eroticism, which is most apparent in the sensuous outlines and the highly finished modeling of the figure. Copious use of white chalk gives her smooth skin a cold white glow.


Early on Klimt showed a fascination for allegory, a mode of representation whereby abstract ideas (such as Sculpture, Nature, or Love) are conveyed through symbolic personifications. The draftsman found inventive, sophisticated ways to make his allegorical figures modern.

Allegorical drawings in his early style, Historicism, are crisply defined, exacting depictions in the academic vein like the image seen here. From 1892 onward, however, Klimt became increasingly inspired by Symbolism, a European cultural movement that valued visual suggestion and the depiction of dreams and desires rather than unambiguous reality. In his later work forms became blurred and slightly mysterious.

In this drawing, Klimt depicts various famous ancient sculptures, including the head of the Juno Ludovisi (at top), the Pallas Athena (wearing her characteristic helmet), and the Boy with Thorn. Here the function of protector of the arts, traditionally ascribed to the Pallas Athena, seems to be taken over by a living female figure, who holds a Nike (or winged female figurine of victory) high up to mark the triumph of sculpture. Klimt's preoccupation with the combative role of the Pallas Athena is further evidenced by the sketches in the margin, where the ancient goddess is shown brandishing her lance.