In this occasional series, Fine Art Today delves into the world of portraiture, highlighting historical and contemporary examples of superb quality and skill. This week: Gustav Klimt, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.”
Known as “The Lady in Gold” or “The Woman in Gold,” Gustav Klimt’s 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (the first of two) is — without debate — one of the most stunning and compelling portraits in art history. In addition, many scholars suggest the painting as Klimt’s masterpiece and the most representative work of his “golden phase” — having taken the artist nearly three years to complete.
Bloch-Bauer was a member of a prominent Jewish family in Austria who frequently patronized artists of the Vienna Secession. This group of avant-garde artists, whose first president was Klimt, had rejected the traditional and academic practices of the Association of Austrian Artists. The portrait was first commissioned in 1903 by Bloch-Bauer’s husband, Ferdinand, who adored Klimt’s complex ornamentation and the Japanese block-printing influence seen in the Jugendstil style.
Since the portrait’s completion, it has taken on a life of its own — a direct result of the various changes in ownership since Adele’s untimely death in 1925 from meningitis. In her will, Adele suggested that the painting be donated to the Austrian State Gallery upon Ferdinand’s death, but the fate of Bloch-Bauer’s portrait was uncertain at best when, in 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria. Ferdinand fled the country, and many of his possessions — including the family’s prized collection of Klimt paintings — were looted and sold on behalf of the German state. Displayed by the Nazi’s after 1940, the portrait was renamed “The Woman in Gold” to conceal the sitter’s Jewish heritage.
Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer passed in 1945 and ordered his estate to be given to his nephew and nieces, including Maria Altmann, who became the center of an international battle for custody of Adele’s portrait, among other artworks. The painting was in the possession of the Austrian government after the Paris Peace Conference of 1946, and it took a major lawsuit in 2000 for the painting to be returned to the family. The storied battle that took place between Altmann and the Austrian government has been a compelling subject, retold in a number of documentaries, books, and a 2015 film titled Woman in Gold.
In 2006, the painting was sold for a then-record price of $135 million to Ronald Lauder for the Neue Galerie in New York City, where it remains on display today.
This article was featured in Fine Art Today, a weekly e-newsletter from Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. To start receiving Fine Art Today for free, click here.