Hygeia is part of a larger painting called Medicine which was executed for the Great Hall ceiling of the Vienna University. The original plan was to decorate the ceiling of the University with four rectangular panels which symbolize the four traditional faculties of the University – Theology, Philosophy, Jurisprudence and Medicine surrounding a larger central panel representing the Triumph of Light over Darkness.
The figure of Hygeia was depicted at the bottom of Medicine with a snake winding around her right arm and the cup of Lethe in her left. According to the Greek mythology, Hygeia is the daughter of Aesculapius, the first doctor and god of medicine and healing in Greek mythology.
Medicine was attacked for its portrayal of provocative nude women and was criticized for being an inappropriate work for the University. There was even a debate in parliament over whether the Minister of Education should cancel Klimt’s commission. All the three paintings, Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence were under severe attack. Although the Minister of Education did not cancel the commission, Klimt asserted in 1904 that he felt his artistic freedom was threatened and was not prepared to relinquish the three paintings to the State.
Medicine was bought by a fellow artist and a friend of Klimt, Koloman Moser (1868-1918) and Erich Lederer. The original painting was destroyed in May 1945 by retreating SS forces, who burned down the Immendorf Palace where the painting was kept.