Who Was Jan Toorop, the Artist Who Inspired Gustav Klimt?

How the restlessness and mysticism of an Indonesian-born Dutch artist influenced one of art history’s most important figures.

Two stylised female figures with clock in hand
Two stylized female figures with clock in hand by Jan Toorop. Photo by: Sepia Times/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Contemporary developments in aesthetic ideals coupled with an increasing interest in moving art out of stuffy galleries and into public realms intrigued the Viennese Secessionists. A group of late nineteenth-century Austrian artists led by Gustav Klimt, the Secessionists were progressives with a visionary in the driving seat. They had moved away from the Association of Austrian Artists in 1897, frustrated by their lack of vision. Now Klimt and the Secessionists wanted their artwork to herald the coming new century.

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Klimt was invigorated by Gesamtkunstwerk, German writer K. F. E. Trahndorff’s portmanteau coined to describe artwork that was the sum of disparate creative constituents, whether they be a mix of media (oil paints, pastels, inks) or formats (print, drawings, collage). Translatable as ‘total art,’ Gesamtkunstwerk had first appeared in Trahndorff’s 1827 essay, Ästhetik oder Lehre von Weltanschauung und Kunst and, by the mid-1800s, the concept was dominating the Western European art world. For Klimt and his fellow Secessionists, Gesamtkunstwerk embodied everything they wished their art to become—a distillation of decorative art forms that worked in vivid and exciting ways.

Het Hoogeland Beekbergen, 1896
Jan Toorop’s Het Hoogeland Beekbergen, 1896. Heritage Images/Getty Images

Gesamtkunstwerk’s coming together of forms and formats was already working well for Jan Toorop, one of the key new aesthetic idealists preparing the ground for Vienna’s fin de siècle new wave. Klimt was open about his influences, citing the likes of Hans Makart, Henri Matisse and his own father (a gold engraver) as cornerstones of his artistic education, but it was Jan Toorop who—above everyone—would provide him with the final fuel needed for his forthcoming golden fire.

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Born in 1858 on the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) to Chinese-Javanese and Dutch parents, Johannes Toorop was sent away to live with relatives in Amsterdam aged twelve. After leaving the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam in 1882, Toorop struck out on his own—a painter in search of a style. Having dipped his toes in Pointillism, Impressionism (both neo- and post-) and Realism, Toorop plugged into Symbolism. With its roots in the same poetic other-worldly realms William Blake, Baudelaire and others had been conjuring up since the turn of the century, Symbolism eschewed the earthly constraints of Realism, opting instead to use metaphors and allegories to invoke emotions.

Portrait Of Jan Toorop (1858-1928).
Portrait of Jan Toorop. Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Taken by the Symbolist movement’s position at the intersection of mysticism, philosophy and religion, in 1883 Toorop was invited to join the elite Brussels-based avant-garde artist group Les XX. Led by Belgian painter James Ensor, the group’s intent to push Symbolism ahead meant Toorop flourished in their company. He felt at home, leaving contemporary scenes and subjects behind for places and figures floating somewhere between Nativity-era Bethlehem and Arthurian Britain.

In the meantime, Klimt had established himself as a singular talent. In 1888—at age 26—he was awarded the Golden Order of Merit for the murals he created alongside his artist brother, Ernst. Painted in oil directly onto the theater’s marble surfaces, as beautiful as they are, Klimt’s paintings are almost unrecognizable in comparison with his later work. In 1892 Klimt’s father and brother died. Both had been formative in Klimt’s traditionalist artistic development and, now they were gone, his practice leaped forward. He experimented. He began mixing mythology with ethereality, taking bolder cues from Toorop and the Symbolists. His new style was taking shape. Then he saw Toorop’s Aurore. Rendered in black chalk and pastel, Aurore (Toorop’s 1892 take on the Greek myth of Aurora and Tithonus) resonates with the grace and mystery that would become a crucial element of Klimt’s future output. When the Kunstmuseum Den Haag staged “Toorop in Vienna: Inspiring Klimt,” the 2006 exhibition that examined Toorop’s hold over Klimt, Toorop’s Aurore was its lead exhibit.

Poster for Delft Salad Oil
Poster for Delft Salad Oil by Jan Toorop, 1894. Sepia Times/Universal Images Gro

There was more to come. In 1894 The Dutch Oil Company commissioned Toorop to design a poster to advertise their salad oil brand. The artwork Toorop delivered was so remarkable that the burgeoning Dutch Nieuwe Kunst (New Art, the genesis of Art Nouveau) movement became known informally as Slaolie or salad-oil style. Klimt looked on in admiration, impressed by Toorop’s use of thick, graphic outlines and opulent waves in the salad leaves and the subjects’ curlicuing hair and gowns. Elsewhere, Toorop’s illustrations were now being used in Deutsche Kunst und Illustration, the German magazine published by writer and editor Alexander Koch. Koch was inspired by the Viennese Secession’s interest in blurring the lines between fine art and decoration, and the magazine was widely distributed amongst Klimt and his fellow Secessionists.

A painting of a knight standing with a woman
Jan Toorop’s ‘Aurore,’ 1892. Public domain

Four years on, with Toorop firmly embedded in Klimt’s mindset, Toorop delivered De Sphinx. Even a cursory glance at Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze (completed in 1902) reveals a debt to Toorop’s mystical piece, from Klimt’s newly keening, long-limbed bodies to the inclusion of mythological beasts—in this case, the serpentine Greek demon, Typhoeus. Furthermore, Klimt’s 1898 painting, Pallas Athene, illustrates the route he was now taking as an artist; a colossal stride on from the theater murals he was painting a decade previously. Again, Toorop’s presence hovers over the artwork, his fingerprints discernible in the helmeted goddess and the two-dimensional background figures.

A painting of a monster surrounded by nude women
Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, 1902. Public domain
A drawing of women worshipping at a Sphinx statue overlooking bodies lying prone
De Sphinx, Jan Toorop, 1898. Public domain

By 1903, Klimt’s time spent studying Toorop was over. He was now in his Golden Phase, an era epitomized by his painting The Kiss, completed in 1908. Klimt died ten years later, aged 55. When Dutch art critic Aegidius Timmerman mentioned Jan Toorop in his 1938 memoir, Tim’s Herinneringen, he described the artist’s canon as possessing “a dash of the Koran, a grain of Veda, a bit of the Bible, a pittance of Thomas à Kempis. His imagination leaned on Carloz Schwabe and Rosetti, on Poe and Ruskin, on Monticelli and Rijsselberghe.” And Klimt reaped the rewards of Toorop’s inquisitive restlessness, for sure. After Toorop toiled, Klimt became mercurial—an incidental apprentice to a master he never met. Jan Toorop died in The Hague in 1928.

Who Was Jan Toorop, the Artist Who Inspired Gustav Klimt?