When Adele Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Jewish salon hostess, sat for her portrait in 1907 by Austria’s most famous painter, Gustav Klimt, it is doubtful that either imagined the painting’s disturbing journey to come. Washington Post journalist Anne-Marie O’Connor explores these realities in her well-researched book, The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.
This story unfolds in turn of the century Vienna, where affluent Jewish families are lured by the city's sophisticated culture. Artists, led by Klimt, seek more freedom to express their "art of the soul." They find support for their Secessionist movement from forward thinking patrons, like Adele and her industrialist husband, Ferdinand. When Ferdinand commissions Klimt to paint his wife, the result is a shimmering, gold mosaic of the dazzling, dark haired beauty.
O'Connor frames the story in three sections, spanning more than one hundred years. While it can be challenging to keep track of all the Bloch-Bauer connections, the short chapters keep the narrative moving with poignant vignettes. Much time is spent on the pillaging of the Viennese Jewish population by Nazi soldiers and theft of their art treasures. Even in post-Nazi Austria, stolen works with questionable provenance remained in Austrian museums. Adele's portrait was renamed The Lady in Gold, losing its Jewish identity.
The author draws upon extensive interviews and correspondence with Adele's niece, Maria Altmann, whose successful legal fight returned the Klimt paintings to private hands, including Klimt's Adele. While the painting today is at the Neue Galerie in New York, it may be impossible to gaze upon Gustav Klimt's muse without considering the human cost of war, the complexities of art restitution, and each stolen painting's story yet to tell.