At 180 x 200 cm, Gustav Klimt’s (1862–1918) allegorical work is the second-largest surviving painting by the master. First drafts on paper were created from 1908 and Klimt began executing the idea in oil in 1910, when he was 48 years old. When the work was first presented at the International Art Exhibition
in Rome in 1911, under its initial title Death
, it earned Klimt a gold medal. It was exhibited as Death and Love
in Dresden in 1912 and subsequently as Death and Life
in Budapest (1913), Mannheim (1913), Prague (1914), Berlin (1916), Stockholm (1917) and Copenhagen (1917/18). Despite its great success, Klimt was never fully satisfied with the work and reworked it several times (1912/13 and 1916/17). This is also evidenced by traces of paint on the original frame, which is exhibited at the Leopold Museum. Klimt’s allegory shows death as a solitary figure on the left, a hunchbacked skeleton shrouded in a cloak of black crosses. Opposite, on the right, the phases of life seem to blend into a single colorful, richly ornamented oval, which includes an amorous couple, a mother with an infant in her arms and an old woman. While the first version depicts death as an introverted and dignified figure, bowing its haloed head, the final version shows death lurking with a malicious grin on its face, raising a small cudgel and preparing to strike. Its gaze falls on the girl on the left edge of the oval, her eyes wide with terror and her hands raised to her chest in a gesture of fear – unnoticed by the remaining figures who are levitating in a dream-like state and refusing to open their eyes to the inevitable.