The spellbinding story, part fairy tale, part suspense, of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, one of the most emblematic portraits of its time; of the beautiful, seductive Viennese Jewish salon hostess who sat for it; the notorious artist who painted it; the now vanished turn-of-the-century Vienna that shaped it; and the strange twisted fate that befell it.
The Lady in Gold, considered an unforgettable masterpiece, one of the twentieth century’s most recognizable paintings, made headlines all over the world when Ronald Lauder bought it for $135 million a century after Klimt, the most famous Austrian painter of his time, completed the society portrait.
Anne-Marie O’Connor, writer for The Washington Post, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, tells the galvanizing story of the Lady in Gold, Adele Bloch-Bauer, a dazzling Viennese Jewish society figure; daughter of the head of one of the largest banks in the Hapsburg Empire, head of the Oriental Railway, whose Orient Express went from Berlin to Constantinople; wife of Ferdinand Bauer, sugar-beet baron.
The Bloch-Bauers were art patrons, and Adele herself was considered a rebel of fin de siècle Vienna (she wanted to be educated, a notion considered “degenerate” in a society that believed women being out in the world went against their feminine “nature”). The author describes how Adele inspired the portrait and how Klimt made more than a hundred sketches of her—simple pencil drawings on thin manila paper.
And O’Connor writes of Klimt himself, son of a failed gold engraver, shunned by arts bureaucrats, called an artistic heretic in his time, a genius in ours.
She writes of the Nazis confiscating the portrait of Adele from the Bloch-Bauers’ grand palais; of the Austrian government putting the painting on display, stripping Adele’s Jewish surname from it so that no clues to her identity (nor any hint of her Jewish origins) would be revealed. Nazi officials called the painting, The Lady in Gold and proudly exhibited it in Vienna’s Baroque Belvedere Palace, consecrated in the 1930s as a Nazi institution.
The author writes of the painting, inspired by the Byzantine mosaics Klimt had studied in Italy, with their exotic symbols and swirls, the subject an idol in a golden shrine.
We see how, sixty years after it was stolen by the Nazis, the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer became the subject of a decade-long litigation between the Austrian government and the Bloch-Bauer heirs, how and why the U.S. Supreme Court became involved in the case, and how the Court’s decision had profound ramifications in the art world.
A riveting social history; an illuminating and haunting look at turn-of-the-century Vienna; a brilliant portrait of the evolution of a painter; a masterfully told tale of suspense. And at the heart of it, the Lady in Gold—the shimmering painting, and its equally irresistible subject, the fate of each forever intertwined.
One of Gustav Klimt's most celebrated paintings (sold to Ronald Lauder for a record $135 million in 2006 and now in the Neue Galerie in New York City, encapsulates a fascinating, complicated cultural history of fin-de-si cle Vienna, its Jewish intelligentsia, and their near complete destruction by the Nazis. Washington Post journalist O'Connor traces the multifaceted history of Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907) in this intriguing, energetically composed, but overly episodic study of Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, and her niece, Maria Bloch-Bauer who reclaimed five Klimt paintings stolen by the Nazis and was extensively interviewed by O'Connor. According to Maria, Adele was "a modern woman, living in the world of yesterday." The book's first and strongest section vividly evokes the intellectually precocious and ambitious Adele's rich cultural and social milieu in Vienna, and how she became entwined with the charismatic, sexually charged, and irreverent Klimt, who may have been Adele's lover before and also during her marriage. During WWII, Adele's portrait was renamed by the Nazis as the Dame in Gold to erase her Jewish identity. O'Connor's final arguments about the tragic yet redemptive symbolism of Adele's portrait are poignant and convincing: while it represents the failure of the dream of Jews like Adele to assimilate, through the painting she achieves "her dream of immortality." 54 photos.
A hard sad book
This is the book that inspired the Helen Mirrin/Ryan Reynolds movie a few years back. It was not an easy read, by any means, but should be read by those who have read Schindler’s list and similar histories.
The first part of the book, about Gustav Klimt, is marvelous. From his early days and family life through to his death, we really get to see the “man behind the curtain”, his poor beginnings and his triumphs and tragedies and his body of work are all reported well. But then, the Nazi invasion and everything that was taken because it could be makes the story begin to drag as O’Connor gets a bit “bogged down” in the reasoning behind Hitler’s invasion and torment of those different from his “Ayrian perfection”.
Then, we begin to follow the Bloch-Bauer fight to get their Klimt back, and circle back to the introduction where her lawyer is in the end, triumphant, if you could call it that, in acquiring the masterpiece hidden in the vault along with countless others that may someday be claimed from the biggest overall art theft in history.
I think this book was very sad, and very true. Someday, maybe, I’ll see the film, but right now, this is enough. Recommended 4/5
Lady in Gold
I really enjoyed this book. It gave me an important look at Austria during World War II. Sometimes the author repeats information from one chapter to the next. But the importance of the message out weighs any other problems. I hope that young people in Austria are required to read this book.
Intriguing account of history, family, morality and love
Fascinating story of a most shameful chapter in history. Amazing book.