Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer – The Woman in Gold”: The painting at the center of a Nazi controversy

Gustave Klimpt’s painting “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer – The Woman in Gold” has a long and complicated history, involving Nazis, legal battles, and finally, a new home in New York.

Commission

When Klimt accepted a commission from wealthy Jewish banker and sugar producer Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, he could not have known how much trouble it would cause.

Adele Bloch-Bauer

Bloch-Bauer commissioned the portrait of his wife Adele in 1903. He originally planned to give the painting to Adele’s parents as an anniversary present that year, but that didn’t quite end up happening.

Klimt undertook more extensive preparations for the portrait than any other piece he worked on, making multiple preparatory sketches and using an elaborate technique for the final piece that involved using gold and silver leaf and then adding decorative motifs in bas-relief using gesso. He didn’t end up finishing the piece until 1907, and the Bloch-Bauers kept the piece instead of giving it to Adele’s parents.

Relationship with Adele

This painting was the final piece Klimt created during his “golden phase,” but it wasn’t the first or the last time he painted Adele Bloch-Bauer. She had modeled for Judith and the Head of Holofernes in 1901, and he painted a second portrait of her in 1912. It’s possible that Klimt and Adele had an affair, though a lack of evidence has made it a controversial topic.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Oil and Gold Leaf on Canvas, 55″ x 55″

Whatever the nature of Klimt’s relationship with Mrs. Bloch-Bauer, she and her husband loved the portraits. When Adele made her will, she requested that all the couple’s Klimt paintings go to the Austrian Galerie Belvedere, though legally they belonged to Ferdinand, who chose not to honor her wish, at least not immediately after her death. Instead, he hung the portraits in his late wife’s room as a shrine to her.

The jeweled choker Adele wears both in the gold portrait and in the Judith painting she modeled for had been a gift from Ferdinand, and a little more than ten years after his wife’s death, he gave the necklace to his niece Maria as a wedding present.

Nazis steal the painting

The next year, in 1938, Ferdinand fled Vienna following the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. He left the paintings behind, and the Nazis seized them and much of his other property, falsely claiming that Ferdinand had evaded taxes of 1.4 million Reichsmarks. Hitler and other Nazi leaders claimed pieces from the Bloch-Bauer collection at reduced prices. One Nazi leader ultimately took the choker gifted to Maria Altmann and gave it to his wife.

Eventually, the portrait of Adele was transferred to the Galerie Belvedere and retitled Lady in Gold to remove all reference to its Jewish subject.

Ferdinand’s last will and legal battles

In 1945, the year he died, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer made a final will that left his entire estate to his nephew and two nieces.

He didn’t name the paintings specifically, thinking they had been lost forever.

Neue Galerie Director Renée Price, Maria Altmann, and President and Co- Founder Ronald S. Lauder, 2006

In 1998, long after the war and Bloch-Bauer’s death, the Austrian government introduced the Art Restitution Act to find out which works of art should be returned to their rightful owners.

Marie Altmann filed a claim with the restitution committee for the return of six Klimt paintings. The committee claimed that the museum legally owned the paintings because of Adele’s will.

After a lengthy legal battle, Altmann and the Austrian government came to a settlement, and five of the six paintings, including the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, were returned to Altmann. She sold the piece to businessman and art collector Ronald Lauder, who placed the piece in Neue Gallery in New York.

Conclussion

Woman in Gold, a 2015 movie based on the story of the recovery of the woman in gold. Starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds

In conclusion, the painting “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer – The Woman in Gold” by Gustave Klimpt has a long and complicated history. The painting was originally commissioned by wealthy Jewish banker and sugar producer Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, but ended up being kept by the Bloch-Bauers instead of being given to Adele’s parents. It is possible that Klimpt and Adele had an affair, though a lack of evidence has made it a controversial topic. Ferdinand fled Vienna in 1938, leaving the paintings behind, and the Nazis seized them and much of his other property. eventually, the portrait of Adele was transferred to the Galerie Belvedere and retitled Lady in Gold to remove all reference to its Jewish subject. In 1998, the Austrian government introduced the Art Restitution Act with the intent of finding out which works of art should be returned to their rightful owners. Marie Altmann filed a claim with the restitution committee for the return of six Klimpt paintings, and after a lengthy legal battle, five of the six paintings, including the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer – The Woman in Gold”, were returned to Altmann.

What are your thoughts on the dramatic history of “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer – The Woman in Gold”?

What do you think of the painting “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer – The Woman in Gold”? Do you think the Austrian government should have returned the painting to Marie Altmann? Do you think Ronald Lauder should have placed the painting in the Neue Gallery in New York?

 

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

13 Comments

  1. I feel so privileged to have seen these paintings in the Belvedere when I visited Vienna in the early 90’s. Personally, I think they should’ve remained there in his home country and to honor her will.

  2. I saw the movie in Netflix. My feelings about this controversy: Yes! I am glad Marie was able to have it. And New York and anyone who wants to view it is enjoying this masterpiece now.
    And Marie and her family have enjoyed the financial rewards from this painting! Good deal for me. 😀

  3. All kinds of injustice in this story, including the property rights of women in marriage, not to mention the travesty of the Nazi era and subsequent treatment of property. That said, the outcome for these paintings seems fair given what the family had lost.

    Seeing the original painting the Neue Museum is worth a trip to New York. Reproductions don’t do it justice. It’s a truly luminous work and much larger than you might expect.

  4. Since the period in which Adele Bloch-Bauer wished to donate the painting to the gallery Galerie Belvedere occurred before the Nazi party gained power, she might well have changed the way she felt about donating it. But since she died, no one is ever going to know. Yet, I think it really should have stayed with the Galerie Belvedere with the proviso to change to name back to its original title. I believe that this in itself would make a valuable statement and for the Galerie to be transparent about who she was and the Nazi plundering as it related to her story.

  5. I hope to see this painting in person some day.

    The movie, “Woman In Gold,” was very compelling. According to the movie script, Marie Altmann was apparently willing to leave the painting in Austria had the museum been willing to meet her terms. That failed and full out legal battle ensued.

    Given the history and considering the comments made, what could prevent a modern controversy on the disposition of an art collection or any part of it today? I would think that the establishment of a legal trust for the art assets that became irrevocable after the death of one of the original trust owners would ensure that the desires of all parties concerned would be followed.

  6. I think that the will should have been honoured. Tracing the history of the paintings back to the original owners and purchasers, whether they decided not to give them away as gift or not, I think that the wishes of Adele Bloch-Bauer should have been the deciding factor.

  7. Thank you Jason for your great informative article about Gustav Klimt and his magnificent portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

    This painting was one of my most favorite paintings to share with my students in Art History. I had the opportunity to see the painting at the Belvedere while living in Central Europe during 1991. The gold leaf is illuminating and the background textural design pattern weaves your eye throughout the work to settle on her beautiful face, shoulders and clasped hands.

    Klimt’s portrait is an outstanding addition to New York City and will be enjoyed by all throughout the West.

  8. I enjoyed seeing this painting at the Belvedere Palace in Vienna twice and have been to the Neue Gallery and plan to go back. A stunning painting to be sure!

  9. The painting is brilliant. I saw it in the 1980’s in Austria. Whether it belongs in Vienna or New York is a troubling question. Personally, I have no problem with where it rests now as long as it is on public display which seems to me the crux of the sitter’s wishes.

  10. I agree with Deborah S. It should be in it’s home country per her will, and with her name as the title. I am glad it is in a museum where people can see it, rather than in the home of a private collector.

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