The Woman in Gold

The Woman in Gold

 

Readers who have a love of art will likely have some knowledge of this dazzling gold-flecked portrait painting. Even if you do not know much about modern art, the painting might still seem familiar to you.

The painting began to get a lot of exposure in the mainstream media, which attracted public attention in 2006, when it was sold at an auction for $135 million, the highest auction price recorded at that time in the art market. Ten years later, the painting is now worth more than $160 million.

Plenty of gold and silver were used combining oil on the canvas. This painting has been referred to as the most fully representative work of Klimt’s golden phase.

If you don’t know much else about the painting, let’s start by talking about its name.

The painting was originally titled Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. It is a 1907 painting by Gustav Klimt, a famous Austrian symbolist painter.

The painting is also called The Woman in Gold or The Lady in Gold.

The story behind the painting is just as extraordinary as its auction price.

As seen in the title, the lady in the painting is Adele Bloch-Bauer. Her husband Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer commissioned Klimt to paint the portrait. Ferdinand and Adele both came from powerful and prestigious families that were extremely wealthy and sponsored the arts in Vienna. Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer especially favored Klimt, who was commissioned to complete another portrait of Adele, titled Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II. The couple would often hold court for artists, musicians, and writers in the salon of their house in Vienna.

Everything was wonderful until 1925 when Adele died of meningitis at the young age of 43. Unfortunately, it was just the prelude for an even greater tragedy, as the dark cloud of Nazi Germany started to approach Vienna in the late 1930s. And yes, the whole Bloch-Bauer family was Jewish.

Finally, in 1938, Ferdinand managed to escape to Switzerland. Nazi soldiers occupied the home of Bloch-Bauer and confiscated their large art collection including this portrait.

Hitler’s government’s lack of appreciation for Klimt’s “degrading” modern art did not stop them from looting and profiteering from Klimt’s works. In order to hide its illegal and Jewish origin, the Nazis renamed the painting The Woman in Gold.

In 1941, the government of Austria bought the portrait from the German government. It was displayed as a national treasure in Schonbrunn Palace until after the war ended.

However, in 2000, after almost 60 years, Maria Altman, an old lady from California, United States, filed a law suit against the government of Austria and stirred up the entire art world.

It turned out that Maria was Ferdinand’s niece. According to Ferdinand’s will from 1945, he left the art work to Maria. Finally, in 2006, after a long legal battle, the Austrian judge committee awarded Maria the painting.

After the portrait returned to the United States, it was purchased for a world record price by a New York Jewish art collector. As per Maria’s request, it is shown to the public. The painting, as well as Klimt’s other works, including Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, are exhibited in Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue in New York. The gallery is closed on Tuesdays and no photography is allowed inside the gallery.

Regarding the story above, I strongly recommend a 2015 movie Woman in Gold. The movie paints a picture of a dark era defined by unrest, harshness of war, and the power of love and art.

Needless to say, there’s much more to this portrait and the story behind it. For example, the “restitution” of art work itself is a huge topic.

Extension:

If you pay close attention to the portrait, you may notice the extremely beautiful diamond necklace that Adele is wearing. Unlike her gold dress, the necklace is no product of artistic freedom. It was a real diamond necklace.

After Adele’s death, Ferdinand gave the necklace to his niece Maria as a wedding gift. However, during Maria’s escape to the United Stated, the necklace ended up in the hands of the Nazis. It was last seen in public at a Nazi gathering, worn by the wife of Hitler’s deputy commander.