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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Danae brings together bright colour and mythology once again

Created in 1907, during the artist’s ‘golden period’, this painting, ‘Danae’ by Gustav Klimt is a late example of Symbolism, a Europe-wide movement that spanned the written and visual arts, and which in the visual arts is characterised by narrative and literary works that are often mythological in theme.

The depiction of Danaë, a story taken from Greek mythology, was a favorite of the Symbolists. The theme was appealing as Danaë was viewed as an archetypal symbolic representation of divine love and redemption.

Danaë’s father, on hearing that a son born of his daughter would in the end be led to kill him, attempted to foil the prophesy by locking Danaë away in a brass chamber; however, she eventually fell pregnant (with Perseus) after the god Zeus appeared to her in the form of a shower of gold.

The painting revels in the moment of conception; the transformed God, appearing as a flowing river of gold spangles, is clutched at and held close to woman’s body.

The cascading golden form seems to concentrate and fracture in a flux of passion. Such a frank portrayal of ecstasy on the face of Danaë, the parted lips and closed eyes, was thought bold and provocative for the time and it must have shocked the painting’s early viewers, although such candid depictions of female sexuality were frequent in many Symbolist works.

The woman is depicted in a state of rich abandon with expansive, nacreous flesh and her auburn hair falling in luxurious tresses across her face. She lies, curled in climactic satisfaction, a stocking raveled about her ankle, in an undefined space, partially wrapped in a flowing, diaphanous veil of gold and purple the traditional colours of luxury.

These signs inform the viewer of her regal identity. The composition with the contorted position of Danaë was unusual dominated as it is by her thigh which takes on huge proportion and fully stresses the overt sexuality of the piece, an emphasis that is only partly mitigated by the distracting effects of the opulent decoration and the abstraction of the surrounding patterns.

The position of the woman’s body seems partly to effect an embryonic state, and the flat boundaries of the abstract painted forms further support this, appearing to encase and protect the woman as though she has been removed from all worldly concern and has been set adrift in the protecting sphere of her own sexual transport.

There is a disturbing element of voyeurism for the viewer; here we are party to the most private sensations; we look upon someone who is completely exposed and who is only aware of the pleasure and ecstasy that has transfixed her attention.

Klimt’s art is very distinctive and today extremely popular.

Klimt was an Austrian artist who took as his primary subject the female body in all its forms, much of his output is characterised by overt sexuality and sensuality of form. He is known for his paintings, large scale murals and later for his delicate sketches of nudes.

He also painted a number of very distinctive landscapes but never any self-portraits; the subject neither interested him, nor he thought should it interest others, ‘Who ever wants to know something about me... ought to look carefully at my pictures.’

The outré nature of his work, particularly the murals he completed for the University of Vienna, led to allegations that it was pornographic.

Klimt was highly influenced by Japanese prints which were becoming freely available.

His art reflects this influence in his use of pattern and flat colour. His most distinctive paintings, and those that gave him critical and financial success, are those from his so-called ‘golden period’ which make extensive use of gold leaf. This technique of opulent ornament can also be seen in pictures such as his famous ‘Kiss’ created in the same year as Danaë.

Klimt’s works have typically achieved very high prices whenever they appear at auction.

The portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer which was auctioned in November 2006 and sold for $88 million was the third-highest priced art piece at the time.

Although his art is extremely popular with the public at large, art criticism has tended to denigrate Klimt’s influence. His most notable protégé was Egon Schiele.

Klimt's work combined art and eroticism in a style which was highly controversial at that time. Danae provides one example of this, also combining this with a theme of mythology.

Those interested in art techniques will be intrigued by his various Danae study piece drawings, which simplify everything down to a minimal selection of lines to produce form.

Their was a more focused, sexualised nature to his pencil drawings, whilst the completed painting boasts Klimt's bold colouring and patterned finishes which add much more to the finished artwork.

In this classical mythology, Danae is seduced by the God Jupiter, who here is represented by golden rain. A careful study of the detail in her portrait reveals an erotic depiction, typical of Klimt through the high point of his career.