Painted Ladies: Adele Bloch-Bauer, Gustav Klimt’s “Woman In Gold”

Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907).
Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907).

She was the Mona Lisa of Austria – her mysterious beauty enthralled everyone who saw her. For years, she was simply called the Woman in Gold – her portrait seen as testament to the genius of the artist, Gustav Klimt. As for the woman herself, she was assumed to be his lover: her inscrutable expression hinted at love, or perhaps a jaded weariness of the society world which she inhabited. This nameless beauty watched over us as we speculated about her life and loves, until the mystery behind her identity – and the darker secrets surrounding her fate – were revealed.

When I first saw this painting in Austria, I was fascinated by her- even though she was resplendent in gold, like a religious idol, you could tell she was a woman the artist knew well – not a saint of legend. Her pose, her finery, and her gaze at the viewer showed that she was a wealthy woman who knew who she was – and if you knew her, you’d likely not forget her.

But even if there were postcards of her everywhere in Vienna, her very existence was evidence of a crime.

Adele Bloch-Bauer’s Charmed Life

Adele Bloch-Bauer lived in Vienna in a very gilded age – her father was a banker, and she had married a sugar baron. (All those fabulous Viennese pastries? Sugar was a booming business at the turn of the 20th century.) She was wealthy, beautiful, and part of an intelligensia connected to artists, musicians, poets and writers. Not a bad life, right?

But there were a few problems: Adele could not have children, in a time when women were identified by their families. And even though the her family were “society”, they were also Jewish, and there was still Anti-Semitism in Austria, so their “society” was the “second society” of meritocracy, wealth, and charitable and cultural patronage. Sharing an apartment with her sister’s family (the two husbands were brothers) could keep her from being left alone without children while her husband was busy working.

Because the Bloch-Bauers were patrons of art and artists, they were far too wealthy and cultured to worry about the rantings of the occasional Anti-Semitic politician. So when Adele’s husband Ferdinand decided she should have her portrait painted by Gustav Klimt, you could imagine that their biggest worry was how beautiful she would look to posterity.

Gustav Klimt’s Ravishing Art

Gustav Klimt was from a background as different from the Bloch-Bauers’ as could be imagined in Vienna at the time. Born the second of seven children to a gold engraver father and a musical mother, he grew up poor, with only his prodigious drawing talent to see him through rough circumstances. He studied architectural painting, and excelled early on at painting murals in buildings. But his personal life was difficult – both his brother and his father died in quick succession, and Gustav became responsible for supporting both families through his work.

He also began shifting his artistic vision, abandoning his popular classicism and moving towards a more personal, revelatory style. He was a founder of the Viennese Secession – a group of young artists seeking to create and promote unconventional art. His new works shocked his old patrons – murals he had painted for the ceiling of the University of Vienna were called pornographic! And they were more blatantly erotic than anything seen in Vienna (in public, at least.)

Klimt was also quite an erotic figure himself – he was, by all accounts, something of a burly man – his working-class physique attracted a lot of women. And he was happy to oblige, even though it got him into lots of trouble – it is said that he fathered at least fourteen children out of wedlock. He made countless drawings of naked women pleasuring themselves – which only added to the speculation surrounding him.

But as hedonistic as he was, Klimt was first and foremost an excellent painter. So no matter what he did in his personal life – and how much he shocked with his unconventional art – he was due for a comeback.

Artist and Muse

No one knows what may have happened between Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt during their friendship, but the process of painting her portrait was a long one. And it may have begun before it was officially commissioned. In 1901, Klimt painted this:

Gustav Klimt, Judith I (and the head of Holofernes), 1901.
Gustav Klimt, Judith I (and the head of Holofernes), 1901.

This is Judith, the Biblical heroine who prevented Holofernes from destroying her city by using her charms to get him drunk and then decapitating him. The beauty and violence of this heroine make her a favorite of artists – but Klimt included details that had people talking. The face of this woman was a modern face – and it looked a lot like Adele Bloch-Bauer. Judith is also wearing an exquisite and distinctive choker. And Klimt’s Judith has a sensuality about her – she’s basically caressing the hair of her conquest, and looking through us with a gaze of ecstasy.

While they were friends already, it wouldn’t be until 1903 that Ferdinand would commission Klimt to paint his wife’s portrait, so these are telling details. But whether the likeness in the painting was evidence of an affair – or an inspiration by a dear and fascinating friend – the friendship between the Bloch-Bauers and Klimt continued.

Adele’s Golden Portrait

Klimt was also maturing into a style that was both satisfying to him and to his patrons. He had traveled to Ravenna, Italy, where he had seen the Byzantine mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale, which is assumed to be inspiration for his new practice of incorporating gold leaf and mosaic patterning into his paintings. Among the scenes in the Basilica is this portrait of the Byzantine Empress Theodora:

Empress Theodora, Basilica de San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.Empress Theodora, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy.

Empress Theodora was legendary – she was a former actress/prostitute who had straightened her life out and married the Emperor. As Empress, she was loved and feared in equal measure. But it’s the portrayal here that’s interesting she’s halo’ed like a saint, in her jewels and finery. And even in mosaic form, she’s striking in her directness.

When finished – it took three years – Klimt’s portrait of Adele was astonishing: she was resplendent in gold, an Empress of society. The eyes and egg motifs in her gown hint at an eroticism – and possibly that affair – while her pose is somewhere between regal and coquettish. We can’t tell. But whatever its intimations, it was beautiful enough that the Bloch-Bauers allowed it to be publicly exhibited as early as a few years after it was painted. But it spent most of its time in their apartment.

Klimt painted a second (or third?) portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer in a more modern style, which was also hung in the family’s home. Unfortunately, Adele didn’t live to old age – she died at 42 years old from meningitis, in 1925. But her story continued far beyond what she could have imagined.

The Lady Vanishes

While the arts scene in Vienna was reinventing itself, there was a concurrent reigning in of political power. Anti-Semitic politicians were gaining audiences, and conservative Austrians were shocked at the liberties their more culturally adventurous counterparts were taking. By the time Austria was taken over by Hitler (who had been rejected by the same art school Klimt had excelled in), there was a general atmosphere that control was needed. In short order, simply being Jewish was a crime.

Jewish families were harassed and placed under house arrest – wealthy Jews had their homes ransacked. All of the Bloch-Bauers’ art and fineries were brazenly stolen from them by Nazi officials. Adele’s nieces (and their husbands) were lucky – they escaped Austria and made it to America, where they could at least pick up the pieces of their lives.

And you would think that would be the end of the painting – but while Nazi taste in art was conservative, Adele’s portrait was so classically beautiful they knew they wanted to keep it. But they really couldn’t show a painting of a Jew, so they stripped it of Adele’s name, calling it Woman in Gold. This identity theft would have been complete, if it weren’t for a few pieces of paper.


One of Adele Bloch-Bauer’s nieces, Maria Altmann, made a startling discovery after her sister died. Among her sister’s papers were a will from their uncle, stating that the paintings were to go to them. This would be a footnote to a tragic story, except that Austria was beginning to give stolen art and artifacts back to Jewish families who could prove that they were the rightful owners. Altmann, who had grown up seeing her Aunt’s portraits on the wall, hoped that maybe she could have her Aunt back with her. Or at least have the authorities admit that the paintings’ theft was an actual crime.

But the portrait was so central to Austrian identity – even if it was anonymous – that officials at the Belvedere fought back. Who wants to admit that they – or more likely at this point, their predecessors – were part of such heinous crimes? Who wants to give back things that they themselves did not steal? And wasn’t it in Adele’s will that the museum got the paintings anyway?

The whole thing became a huge battle, even going to the U.S. Supreme Court when officials in Austria blocked it. And there’s now a movie about it, starring Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann and Ryan Reynolds as her young attorney:

The movie received lukewarm reviews from critics, who probably didn’t appreciate the snappy banter between Altmann and her young lawyer, but I was touched by the movie’s portrayal of her charmed young life in Vienna. So many movies about the Nazis and their crimes focus on the violence and death they inflicted, but we see so little of the lives people had before they were stolen.

Spoiler alert – Maria Altmann won her case. That’s not really a spoiler – the painting was later sold to Ronald Lauder and is on permanent display in the Neue Galerie in New York, so we can visit the Lady Bloch-Bauer whenever we want. And the Neue Galerie is exhibiting a show on the painting’s story until September 7, 2015.

But the amazing thing is that Adele Bloch-Bauer had her name restored.Her painting lives on, with her own name reattached. After all the work that went into keeping her anonymous, she’s more famous than ever. But even with her biographical details, we still don’t know that much about her – she may be a temptress, an empress, or maybe just a little more modern than the time she lived in. That she survived being looted, renamed and fought over only adds to her allure. Even without the gold and mosaic elements, Adele Bloch-Bauer’s portrait transcends two dimensions: her beauty lives on in history as well as art, and while she doesn’t speak, we are still enthralled by her story.

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