Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of Gustav Klimt’s birth, and we’re featuring “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” a luminous portrait that is considered one of his masterpieces. Klimt pioneered the Vienna Secession, an important movement that broke with traditional style and subject matter, and much of his work was met with simultaneous acclaim and intense protest. “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” is at the Neue Galerie in NYC, where the special exhibit “Gustav Klimt: 150th Anniversary Celebration” runs through August 27th. If you’re on the West Coast, get your Klimt fix at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. “Gustav Klimt: The Magic of Line” is open through September 23rd. To learn more about the groundbreaking artist, his high-society muse, Nazi thefts, and a lengthy legal battle, keep reading.
1. Klimt worked in various genres, including landscape and portraiture, and “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” is his most celebrated portrait. It is a supreme example of his “golden period,” which began after two trips to Venice and Ravenna in 1903. Enchanted with the Byzantine mosaics of churches such as San Vitale, Klimt infused his works of this period with ornate geometric and floral patterning (seen on Adele’s garments here) that mimicked the mosaics and covered surfaces in radiant gold leaf, suggestive of the reflective tesserae. Another famous example from the golden period is ‘The Kiss.”
2. Adele Bloch-Bauer was married to a Jewish sugar industrialist and hosted a prominent Viennese salon whose rarefied guests included Mahler and Strauss. Klimt painted two portraits of her; this one was commissioned by her husband Ferdinand as a present for her parents’ wedding anniversary. It is theorized that she is also the inspiration behind his famous “Judith,” the archetypal Jewish heroine. Adele maintained a close relationship with Klimt, and there were rumors that the artist and his model carried on an affair. However, her sister Therese strongly rejected these tales, insisting that theirs was “an intellectual friendship.”
3. Adele died suddenly of meningitis in 1925 and expressed desire in her will that Ferdinand leave her portrait and four other Klimt paintings to Austria upon his death. But in 1938, after Germany annexed Austria, Ferdinand fled the country, leaving his possessions behind and writing a will leaving everything to his nieces and nephew. The Nazis seized the Bloch-Bauers’ art collection and properties, and after WWII, a lengthy legal battle by the family for restitution began. It was stymied by a lack of evidence until the 80s, when journalistic investigations began to turn up documents. The one surviving niece, Maria Altmann, eventually won the right granted by the Supreme Court to sue Austria, and in January of 2006, she was awarded the five Klimt paintings. Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics magnate, purchased the painting in a private sale later that year for the extraordinary sum of $135 million, at the time the highest price for a painting. Lauder, a former US ambassador to Austria, describes the painting as “our Mona Lisa” and it is on permanent display in the Neue Galerie, which he co-founded.
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