Hope I is an oil painting created by Gustav Klimt in 1903. It is 189 cm x 67 cm and currently located in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. The main subject of this work is a pregnant, nude female. She is holding her hands together above her stomach and close to her chest. She gazes directly at the viewer and has a great mass of hair with a crown of forget-me-not flowers placed on her head.] The scene is beautiful upon first glance but once the viewer’s eyes move to the background, deathlike figures become noticeably present.
In the years before this painting was made, it was uncommon to show pregnancy in art in Western art and Gustav Klimt was one of the first artists who blatantly portrayed a nude pregnant female in a powerful manner. Klimt did not show this work to the public until the Second Vienna Kunstschau in 1909. The themes present in this painting are contradictory, such as birth and death. The dark figures in the background swirl around the nude female seeming to blend the idea of life, death, and rebirth.
Not only does this painting show deathly figures in the background, but there also is a sea monster standing towards the left. The viewer can notice the monster’s teeth along with its claw like hand that is located directly across from the woman’s stomach and pelvic region. The sea monster has a large tail that wraps around the feet of the woman as if trying to capture her and continues out of the frame. Also, among the three sickly looking figures in the background, there is a skull located directly above the woman’s head. This skull is attached to a blue body with varying shapes, lines, and colors. The skull represents death and decay while the three figures in the background symbolise disease, old age, and madness.
The skull behind the woman could be a reference to the art historical tradition of memento mori, which serves as a reminder that death is unavoidable. This tradition focuses on the idea that you can be thriving with life (such as the nude woman is) but tomorrow could bring the possibility of death. In Hope I the theme of life, death, and rebirth relate to the similar themes behind the tradition of memento mori. In art, memento mori is often represented by a skull, which we see present in the background of Hope I.
The model for this painting was Herma, one of Gustav Klimt’s favorite models. Klimt described Herma as “having a backside more beautiful and more intelligent than the faces of many other models.” Hope I was created unexpectedly; one day Herma was supposed to model for Klimt and did not show up. He became concerned and eventually sent someone to see if she was sick. The response that Klimt received was that Herma was not sick, but pregnant. Klimt demanded she come into work regardless of her being pregnant and upon seeing her he decided to make her the model for Hope I. It is believed that Klimt had sexual relations with nearly all his models. However, it is not known whether or not any of the pregnancies depicted in his paintings, such as Herma’s, were his offspring.
It is possible that this painting may be closer to Gustav Klimt's personal life than one might realize upon first glance. In 1902, a year before Hope I was painted, Klimt had a son, Otto Zimmermann, who died in infancy. The original sketch for the painting Hope I involved a pregnant female with a male next to her comforting her. It is thought that maybe the death of Klimt’s son changed the mood for this painting creating a memento mori theme. The man that was in the original sketch has now been replaced by the skull figure in the final painting. There is not a lot of documentation of Klimt’s personal life, but much is known about his artistic career....
Klimt is known for being an artist who broke with tradition in regards to the way he depicted his nude figures. During this time artists in Austria were painting nude females, but these women were often involved in a great story or allegory and the artists used drapery to cover their bodies. Klimt was not afraid to depict an exposed nude female that had no clothing or drapery covering her. The women he depicts, such as the woman in Hope I, have curly, out-of-control hair and he dares to depict their pubic hair as well. Bodily hair, especially pubic hair, was not seen as being a beautiful physical quality in women thus Klimt showed a new way of perceiving the nude female in art with Hope I.
This new style of Klimt’s artwork that included nude, slender, seductive females created controversy between Klimt and the Austrians. They saw Klimt’s paintings as sexual and scandalous and their conservative beliefs seemed to clash with what Klimt was trying to create with his artwork. Usually the women Klimt painted were shown as beautiful, powerful, and not subjective to their male partners. This “new woman” was a shock to the people of Austria but it is also one of the reasons Gustav Klimt became such a well-known, successful artist that made a great impact in the world of art history.