In the beginning of the 20th century, Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt (1862 – 1918) was known for his luxurious paintings and generous use of gold leaf application. Critics called it his Golden Phase. Fascinated by the female subject, the artist returned repeatedly to painting women amidst golden settings.
Danaë (1907) is a representative painting of Klimt’s Golden Phase, albeit less well known. At first glance, the painting looks as if it’s depicting the peaceful slumber of a nude, redheaded woman, curled up in a fetal position. Upon closer inspection, we see her parted lips and the heat emanating from her body in the blush of her cheeks. Golden rain flows between her slightly parted legs. Her tensed hand with fingers curled suggests that she is captured in a climactic moment.
The woman portrayed is Danaë. According to Greek mythology, Princess Danaë was the daughter and only child of King Acrisius of Argos and Queen Eurydice. After an oracle’s prophecy warned him that his grandson would kill him, King Acrisius locked his daughter in a bronze tower, so that she wouldn’t bear any children. But Zeus, the king of gods, being drawn to the princess, visited her at night in the form of golden rain and impregnated her. The child they had together was the demigod Perseus.
Now we know that Klimt’s artwork is subtly showing the eroticism of Danaë’s impregnation by Zeus. It’s a truly fascinating painting. Her flesh is so carnal and wonderfully rendered, the large thigh suggesting voluptuousness and fertility. The few unruly strands of the princess’s hair, draped over her shoulder are another indication of her state of arousal. The closely cropped portrait, together with Danaë’s curled body pose and the royal purple shawl around her, give the impression that she’s wrapped in a cocoon, enraptured by Zeus’ spell.