«The kiss (the lovers)» by Gustav Klimt. Apollo and Daphne: an iconographic essay.

«Whoever wants to know something about me -as an artist which alone is significant- they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognise what I am and what I want» (Gustav Klimt).

With this post, we present a short essay (based in a book published in 2008 and in a working paper presented in an Art Nouveau congress in 2013) about the iconographic sources of «the Kiss» by Gustav Klimt.  We will work about and explain the iconographic sources that allow us to understand its meaning in the most complete way possible. The thesis developed in the following post is, in brief, as follows: «the Kiss» is the representation of the moment when Apollo kisses Daphne according to the letter of the fable of Ovid’s metamorphosis, which refers to that moment, while she is transforming into a laurel tree. In the background, and taking into account the sources analyzed, we consider it to be also a veiled portrait of the artists Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald. This last point, in the absence of clearer and more precise sources, is still an hypothesis based in some details and arguments but still to proof. It is possible to share one of the two aspects of the analysis, both…or neither, of course.


Nueva imagen
Klimt paintings in the Art History Museum, Vienna.

Klimt, who in 1893 was a candidate professor of painting history at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, painted the theme of the «Italian Renaissance» on the staircase of the Vienna Museum of Art History (1890-1891). It is possible to follow an interpretation in books and in the wikipedia: [https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altitalienische_Kunst_(Klimt)].

The following words are only a very brief essay of alternative iconographic interpretation.

Nueva imagen b
Petrarch and Laura.

Who are those characters of the Italian Renaissance? Let’s think about literature, more than painting. We know by the historiography that there is a bust of Dante. But, who is the man on the left side? Dressed in black and with a book in his hand, he can only be Petrarch, an ecclesiastic, with his Canzoniere, which he offers to Laura (on the right with a golden aura -«l’aura»). But she doesn’t look at him. His eyes do not meet Petrarch’s. The so-called angel, above Laura, is cupid, if we follow the letter of the Canzoniere (Cupid doesn’t even show Laura the bow, regrets Petrarca).

Nueva imagen c

And the boy? Who can this child be but Bocaccio, who was eight years old when Dante died and to whom he dedicated a conmemorative treatise? Bocaccio has a gold shield in his hand, the poet’s lightning rod, that is, the laurel immune to lightning, as codified in mythology.

Dante, Petrarch and Bocaccio: the most important italian writers of the Trecento Renaissance according to Gustav Klimt. No wonder Klimt recited Petrarch. Klimt knew the Canzoniere well, the mythical fusion of Petrarch in Apollo and the identification of Laura, his beloved, with the laurel. This is one of the arguments that make the interpretation of «The Kiss» according to the myth of Apollo and Daphne reasonable.


The Secession building in Vienna

Between 1897 and 1898 the Secession building was built according to the plans of Joseph Maria Olbrich. The Secession building, as I understand it,  was the Temple of Apollo Daphnephorus (that wears the laurel). As it was the Temple of Apollo -God of the Arts- Gustav Klimt designed the golden laurel leaves of the Olbrich dome. The laurel was the symbol with which Apollo represented himself after having uselessly pursued Daphne (laurel). The day of the inauguration of the Temple, as the honorary president of the Secession and founding member -Rudolf von Alt- was performing the function of the «priest» of the Temple, he received as a present a golden laurel branch, turning the act of inauguration into a real Daphneforia, in honour to the God of Arts [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daphnephoria].

Von Alt
Laurel branch that was given to Rudolf von Alt.

In ancien Greece, the Daphnephorus priest wore a golden laurel wreath and was followed by a procession of virgins wearing crown wreaths and singing in honor of God. This procession is the one designed by Koloman Moser on the outside of the walls of the Temple of Apollo of the Viennese Secession.

Koloman Moser. Virgins procession in the Secession building. Reconstruction.

Overall, the Secession building cannot be understood outside the world of ancient Greek culture. Daphne -laurel- had an important place in its symbolism.


Was Daphne the protective Nymph or some special symbolic figure of the Viennese Secession? The same year that the Temple of Apollo Daphnephorus (Secession building) was inaugurated in 1898, Gustav Klimt and Koloman Moser published allegories of Daphne in the magazine Ver Sacrum. Another member of the Secession also did it, Wilhelm List (1864-1918): his lithograph was published in a supplement to the same magazine in 1899.

Therefore, from left to right of the image: Wilhelm List (Apollo & Daphne) [Supplement Ver Sacrum, 1899], Koloman Moser (Daphne as sacred spring) [Ver Sacrum, vol. I, number 1, 1898] and Gustav Klimt (Letter «D») [Ver Sacrum, vol. I. number 3, 1898].

Tres Daphne
Daphne in the Secession

In this sense, the interpretation of «The Kiss» following the fable of Ovid’s Apollo and Daphne is consistent with the classical traditions that are the iconographic foundation of the Viennese Secession and, in particular, of the art of Gustav Klimt.


1 (3) b
Carel van Mander (1588 ca.).

In Art history, it is very rare to find represented the moment of the fable of Apollo and Daphne when the Sun God kisses «the wood» that Daphne is becoming. But, there is an interesting exception in a drawing (1588 ca.) by Carel van Mander (1548-1606), found in the Galleria degli Uffizi, in Florence. In it, Apollo embraces and kisses Daphne in such a way that the meaning of the representation changes radically as Elisa Saviani comments in the excellent web page on Ovid’s metamorphosis iconography http://www.iconos.it/le-metamorfosi-di-ovidio/book -i / apollo-e-dafne / immagini / 57-apollo-e-dafne / :

“Apollo, con il mantello ed i capelli al vento, ha qui raggiunto la ninfa nella sua fuga, tuttavia, resosi conto che non la potrà mai avere, le chiede probabilmente almeno un bacio, prima che il suo aspetto umano svanisca per sempre. Ed infatti, al centro i due personaggi sono raffigurati nel momento in cui si scambiano un bacio passionale: un gesto innovativo e controcorrente sia rispetto alla tradizionale iconografia del mito, sia rispetto alla tradizione letteraria, a significare quasi una vittoria finale dell’amore, una vittoria radicale, non solo sul dio, ma anche sui propositi della ninfa…».

1 (3)
Detail of Carel van Mander drawing.

In the context of Gustav Klimt and the Secession, I think classical mythology is an important iconographic source. In «the Kiss» by Klimt the point of view of Carel van Mander was in some way manifest in the other title of the work, “the lovers” (Liebespaar).


32 r
Adele Bloch-Bauer I» -at right- and «Liebespaar» (first name for «The Kiss»). Gustav Klimt Room in the Kunstschau Wien 1908.

Usually representations of Apollo & Daphne are centered in the moment he is still running and she is being transformed into a laurel tree. But, in the last words of this Ovid’s paragraph of The metamorphoses, there is a direct reference to the KISS of Apollo to Daphne, very rarely represented in art, as we have explained before. Indeed, we have seen before that, excepcionally, Carel van Mander treated this moment in a work of art of 1588 ca.

Let’s read  this last moment, after Daphne prays to the Gods to destroy her shape:

“She said, “Father bring help! [O] Rivers, if you have divinity,
destroy my shape by which I’ve pleased too much, by changing [it]!”
Having barely finished the prayer, a heavy numbness seizes her limbs,
her soft breasts are girded by thin bark,
her hair grows into foliage, her arms into branches,
her foot, just now so swift, clings by sluggish roots,
her face has the top of a tree: a single splendor remains in her.
Apollo loves this one too and with a right hand placed on the
trunk feels that her heart still trembles under the new bark,
and having embraced the branches as limbs with his own arms
he gives the wood kisses, and the wood shrinks from the kisses

If we essay to look at “the Kiss” under the optic of this Ovid’s words, we see some characters that fit and that we are going to explain in detail: his right hand placed on the trunk, her arms beginning to look branches, her head the top of the tree, her beauty remains, her feet becoming roots (look at the fingers) , like in the Daphne of Bernini…and after all, the KISS. It isn’t a plausible explanation, at least better than the misty references to the psychology of the image? This way of looking at “the Kiss” is a respectful interpretation of Klimt attraction for mythology. Let us enjoy this work of art in all its meaning!

Der Kuss
Gustav Klimt. The Kiss. 1907/08. Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Wien.


recorte geom+®trico


Fresco of Apollo & Daphne (Naples) and detail of «the Kiss».

I have heard or read somewhere that the legs of the woman in «the kiss» were «badly done». Unbelievable. They were perfectly painted. At right image: it is interesting to note how the woman’s legs in «The Kiss» lengthen and bend and how her toes stretch as they are both drawn to the ground (Mother Gea), whom Daphne asks also help in some versions of the fable to become a laurel. There are also golden laurel leaves that grow from the legs.

At left: we can make a comparison with the position of the legs of Daphne found in a representation of Apollo and Daphne in a fresco of a house in Pompeya (Naples, National Archaeological Museum).

We are not saying that Klimt new the roman fresco, but the coincidence is interesting to show how the strenght of Gea is absorbing the legs of Daphne, that are going to be transformed in roots.


FROM BAROQUE TO THE SECESSION. What do Bernini’s Baroque sculpture and Klimt’s Secession painting have in common? Both represent Apollo and Daphne, sharing the literary source, but in a different way: Bernini focuses on the chase-flight moment while Klimt describes the kiss of the wood (Oscula dat lignum, says Ovid). A significant common detail: Dafne’s toes lengthen because Mother Earth (Gea) absorbs them transforming them into roots. Gustav Klimt was a master at using classical Myths.

Sin título-1 (2)
Comparison between Bernini’s Apolo & Daphne and the kiss of Gustav Klimt. The toes of Daphne.


We continue with the details of the picture through the iconographic analysis.

Corona de apolo
Comparison between a Renaissance miniature and «the kiss». Apollo’s crown.

Apollo is usually represented with a laurel wreath, in honour of the nymph Daphne (laurel), whom he could not possess despite being able to kiss him. We see the crown very clearly in this magnificent Renaissance illustration of a Canzoniere by Petrarch from around 1500 (at left). In «the Kiss» by Klimt, laurel leaves begin to appear on his head, indicating the beginning of his crown. It is a veiled image of Apollo’s crown. Klimt hints at all the features of Apollo’s kiss to Daphne; he does not expressly show any. “The Kiss» is a masterful lesson in pictorial symbolism and restraint.

This way of looking at “the Kiss” is, again,  a respectful interpretation of Klimt attraction for mythology.


Comparison between a Renaissance miniature and «the kiss». Laurel branches.

If we look at Daphne’s right arm in «The Kiss», we see that it has a strange position and shape, because it is becoming a branch. More explicit are the golden laurel branches that grow on his feet. It is not strange because the laurel sprouts naturally at the base of the trunk. At this point Klimt masterfully changes the direction of the branches because instead of upwards they grow downwards. Once again a veiled feature of Daphne’s metamorphosis. Here we compare this detail with an illustration by Apollo and Daphne of a Canzoniere of Petrarch from about 1500 (at left) [miniature, attributed to Liberale da Verona or Giovanni Pietro Birago: Codices Guelferbytani Extravagantes, nº 277,4, fol. 23 r. Herzog-August Bibliotheke, Wolfenbüttel]. We see in the illustration, taken as an example, that the branches grow in Daphne at the base of the trunk. These branches are visible also, for example, in the Daphne of Bernini.

ramas en Bernini
Bernini’s  Apollo & Daphne. Detail of the laurel branches in the base of the trunk.


As is well-known, Gustav Klimt’s dresses contain veiled or indirect messages. Sometimes they are very explicit, as in «Death and Life» where death is dressed in cemetery crosses (detail of the picture at left). In «the Kiss» Daphne’s dress also conveys meaning: there are rinds and sections of trunks that can be interpreted as a symbol of the trunk of the laurel tree that she is becoming while Apollo kisses her. The extraordinary length of her body -she is very tall- is due to the fact that it is the trunk of the tree.

Remember: Oscula dat lignum says Ovid. Apollo kisses wood.

Vestidos de Klimt
Comparison of Dresses in Gustav Klimt paintings «Death and live» and «the kiss».


Charles Rennie Mackintosh (signed). Apollo and Daphne.

There is a very interesting illustration signed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (possibly a work of  Margaret MacDonald?) in the collection of the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery of the University of Glasgow (GLAHA 53127).  The words in the upper side of the image help in identifying the meaning of the ilustration because they are the last words that  Apollo says to Daphne after kissing her. This was, in my opinion, an inspiration for Gustav Klimt «the Kiss».

Ovid, writes:

“Phoebus admired and loved the graceful tree, (For still, though changed, her slender form remained) and with his right hand lingering on the trunk he felt her bosom throbbing in the bark. He clung to trunk and branch as though to twine. His form with hers, and fondly kissed the wood that shrank from every kiss. And thus the God; “Although thou canst not be my bride, thou shalt be called my chosen tree, and thy green leaves, O Laurel! shall forever crown my brows, be wreathed around my quiver and my lyre; the Roman heroes shall be crowned with thee, as long processions climb the Capitol and chanting throngs proclaim their victories”. Ovid, Metamorphoses.

GLAHA53127 copia det
Detail of the words that lead the illustration.

In the illustration by Charles we see that there is a kiss in the lips between Apollo and Daphne, the leaves of laurel in triangles and also her left arm hanging from his shoulder. There is a square under the ground made of squares (a Mackintosh icon) that can be understood as the heart of Charles. The heart of Charles is the seed of the transformation, if we follow the words of the Canzoniere of Petrarch, that uses the myth to change also Apolo, transforming him into a laurel tree for being with his love, Laura (id. est. laurel). It is at this point of the literature -Petrarch- where the iconography of persecution is changed for  that of love and the kiss takes another meaning. In this way the first name of the Kiss of Gustav Klimt was «Lovers» (Liebespaar).

In relation to this mentioned  illustration of the Glasgow artists,  there is a drawing made by Klimt (1904-1907, Museum der Stadt Wien), that we consider preparatory for «the Kiss». It is useful to compare the position of the head in both works. For us it is clear that the drawing by Klimt is inspired in the mentioned illustration with some interesting detail: it is possible to see that the arm of her in Klimt’s drawing is becoming a branch. Finally we annex a comparison of details of the three images in discussion: the illustration of Charles, the drawing of Klimt and «the Kiss».

Gustav Klimt Drawing, (1904-1907).
tres caras
Comparison between the heads in Charles Rennie Mackintosh (left) and Gustav Klimt (center -drawing- and right).


Petrarch, in the Canzoniere, mythically merges with Apollo and writes that he also become a laurel (like Daphne) to be with his beloved, Laura, (alter ego of laurel): image of the left (down) from a Canzoniere in Venice (1470). This is called the mythic fusion of Petrarch in Apollo.

Following this iconography, Charles and Margaret’s greeting card (image on the right) from 1900 ca. shows Charles turned into a laurel: his arms are branches and his head the top of the tree. Charles’s heart is buried because it is the seed of transformation into laurel. At the same time Charles’s heart is chained to her, who kisses him. All this comes from Petrarch writtings. One motif, that of Apollo and Daphne, read according to the Renaissance version of Petrarch, that inspired Gustav Klimt in «the Kiss». The greeting card was published in the Secession magazine Ver Sacrum, 1901, Heft 23. So it was clearly known by Klimt.

CRM transformado en laurel b
Illustration of a Canzoniere and Charles and Margaret’s greeting card (1900).


I have argued the hypothesis that in «the kiss» by Gustav Klimt there is a veiled portrait of Charles and Margaret. I have no evidence, logically. Just intuitions and some indexes and details that I have tried to expose in my previous words in this post. Especially meaningful are the two illustrations by the Glasgow artists on Apollo and Daphne (one under Petrarch influence), which I think should interest and condition in some way Klimt’s great work.

As is known, Klimt slightly modified «the Kiss (lovers)» after its exhibition at the Kustschau Wien in 1908. One of the highlights of these modifications is the square of squares in the center of the body of the male figure. We have a black and white photograph of the first state of «the Kiss» where that symbol can be clearly seen [published in Die Kunst, XI Jahrgang, 1908, p. 522].

There is no doubt that Klimt’s dresses convey meanings. Next to this symbol in the photography of 1908 that we reproduce, we have put (at left) also the decoration of the cupboards in the dining room of the House of an art lover, a project by Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1900). They are equal. Does anyone believe that Klimt put that strong and meaningful symbol of Charles there by accident? Isn’t the aforementioned symbol the heart of Charles? I invite you to think about this hypothesis.

Was not Klimt a symbolist painter? Was not the painter of  the Woman? Why he did not paint never a friend like Margaret? Were not Charles and Margaret lovers? (Kunstlerpaar/Liebespaar). All the friendship relations between Glasgow Artists and those of Vienna come to my mind. It is a well-known story. Of course, there is a narrative continuity, based in Petrarch,  between «The kiss (the lovers)» (1908) and «The embrace (the fulfillment)» of Gustav Klimt frieze in Palais Stoclet whose preparatory drawings were done around 1908-1910 .

El beso y el corazón de Charles
First version of «the Kiss». Kustschau Wien, 1908. The heart of Charles.

composicion de conjunto

We finalize this essay about the sources of «the Kiss» by Gustav Klimt.  We have explained the iconographic sources that allow us to understand its meaning in the most complete -and better- way possible. The thesis developed is as follows: «the Kiss» is the representation of the moment when Apollo kisses Daphne according to the letter of the fable of Ovid’s metamorphosis, which refers to that moment, while she is transforming into a laurel tree. In the background, and taking into account the sources analyzed, we consider it to be also a veiled portrait of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Margaret Macdonald. This last point, in the absence of clearer and more precise sources, is only an hypothesis based in some details and arguments but still to proof.  Of course, observations and criticism are wellcome. Thank you for reading.

Please feel free to email: juliovivesch@yahoo.es

N.B.: the main source of this essay is the book published in 2008:  El beso (los enamorados) de Gustav Klimt. Un ensayo de iconografía, Editorial Lulu.com (print on demand), 2008, 144 pp. ISBN 978-1-4092-0530-2.  In 2013, the International Congress on Art Nouveau held in Barcelona had the deference -my sincere thanks- of accepting the communication with the title «The iconographic meaning of» The kiss (lovers) «by Gustav Klimt», I Coup de Fouet International Art Nouveau congress, Barcelona, ​​June 2013. Ebook (Publications of the University of Barcelona), 2015. The then «ongoing research» was presented in English. It is published only in Spanish and it is digitally accessible.  In 2018 I started a blog and among the first posts I published was one that had as its initial title «el beso de la madera» («the kiss of the wood»). I thought that such a title was not strange in a blog about Vienna bentwood furniture and followed literally the words of Ovid «Oscula dat lignum». Finally I changed the title for the most appropriate and explicit of «The Kiss by Gustav Klimt: the myth of Apollo and Daphne».

Un comentario sobre “«The kiss (the lovers)» by Gustav Klimt. Apollo and Daphne: an iconographic essay.

Deja una respuesta

Introduce tus datos o haz clic en un icono para iniciar sesión:

Logo de WordPress.com

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de WordPress.com. Salir /  Cambiar )

Foto de Facebook

Estás comentando usando tu cuenta de Facebook. Salir /  Cambiar )

Conectando a %s

Este sitio usa Akismet para reducir el spam. Aprende cómo se procesan los datos de tus comentarios.