On the Upper East Side of New York City sits a woman in one of the most distinguished mansions on Fifth Avenue. Her hazel eyes look past you with longing. Her cheeks flush, her lips pursed as if about to speak, each pale hand clasped around the other. A large diamond choker around her elongated neck, she wears an elaborate golden gown of flowing fabrics, adorned with a complex patchwork of sacred symbols characteristic of Art Nouveau style. The woman is Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of Gustav Klimt’s famous painting, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” also known as “The Woman in Gold.” The painting itself is unbelievably stunning, but to value it correctly you must know its incredible history and why it has left so many wanting.
The portrait was originally commissioned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, an Austrian sugar magnate, as a gift to his wife, Adele. It took three years to complete, with a finish date of 1907. Influenced by Byzantine mosaics, Mycenaean and Egyptian art, Klimt wanted to try something new with this work. Experimenting with various techniques, he combined oil painting with silver and gold leaf on canvas to create his opulent embellishments. The painting became one of Adele Bloch-Bauer’s most prized possessions and was so until her death of meningitis in 1925. Before her passing, Adele created a will where she asked her husband to donate the painting to the Austrian State Gallery upon his own death–a key element in the next chapter of this story.
In 1938, when the Nazis invaded, they seized the painting, along with much of the contents of the Bloch-Bauer’s home. The portrait was eventually acquired by the Austrian State Gallery, housed in the Belvedere Palace, which claimed ownership based on Adele’s 1923 will. However, after fleeing Austria during the war, Ferdinand died in Switzerland in 1945 and left his estate, including the Klimt painting, to his niece, Maria Altmann.
Sixty years later, the Austrian government opened its archives, which, in turn, helped to facilitate a broader effort of reclamation of property seized by the Nazis. All previously undisclosed information was made public, including Ferdinand’s will. Maria Altmann sued Austria in US Court in 2000 for the ownership of the portrait, as well as other works that were originally in her uncle’s collection. After a series of lengthy court battles, in 2006, it was established that Maria was the rightful owner of the piece. Following her win, Maria Altmann decided to sell the portrait after being approached by Estée Lauder heir Ronald Lauder, one of the world’s most renowned collectors and a strong force within the Jewish community. Lauder shelled out $135 million for the piece.
Today, “The Woman in Gold” sits on a wall of Lauder’s Neue Galerie Museum in New York City. Now on display through September, viewers can see the portrait within a greater context, surrounded by preparatory sketches, vintage photographs, and historical materials about Klimt, proof it was always a painting destined for the world beyond a family’s personal living room.
Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold
April – September 7, 2015
Neue Galerie: 1048 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028