This stunning work, dating from the earliest time of Gustav Klimt’s career, depicts an elderly gentleman wearing a white frilled neck ruff seen from behind in part profile. It is in fact a modello or preparatory sketch for a figure in his Theatre of Shakespeare on the ceiling of the Burgtheater in Vienna. However, the present sheet shows like a finishing work with very strong impact.
In 1886, Gustav Klimt, his brother Ernst and their friend Hans Makart, a group known as the “Company of Artists”, received their first major commission, a series of ten paintings to adorn the ceilings of the two grand staircases at the Vienna Burgtheater, a building recently designed by Gottfreid Semper and Karl von Hasenauer. The painted scenes had to depict History of Theatre, from Ancient Greece to Elizabethan England. The Theatre of Shakespeare is focused on a performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theatre in London during Shakespeare’s lifetime. It had a great impression at the time and enormously contributed to Klimt’s reputation in late 19th century Austria. The Emperor Franz Joseph I awarded him the Golden Order of Merit for it, and two years later Klimt was commissioned a series of paintings in the stairwell at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
This present drawing of an elderly gentleman is a study for the seated figure on the front row watching the performance, in the finished painting. The gentleman, who’s head can be found just underneath Romeo’s outstretched left leg, is partially obscured by a redheaded figure seated just behind him. In a manner often employed by Klimt, the head of the gentleman is drawn with precise detail and is finely outlined in black chalk,as Klimt often did to frame the work and to give it a crisp clinical finish. Every strand of the figure’s hair is drawn individually, and the artist uses black, grey and white to achieve a realistic effect. The gentleman wears a large white ruff which is stylishly offset by the black of his jacket, drawn quickly with less finesse. The chair on which he sits is represented a few lines only, and the fact that Klimt has drawn no left arm suggests that he always intended to fill the area with another figure.
We must say that early Klimt drawings of such a quality are of the greatest rarity and virtually never come on the market. Most of them are in public collections in Vienna.