Vienna circa 1900 was a virtual paradise for artists, intellectuals and those who enjoyed their company. It was during this cultural golden age that the painter Gustav Klimt, having pulled himself up from poverty and into fame as a “workaholic artist and serial philanderer,” created his best-known works. Among them was a portrait, three years in the making, of Adele Bloch-Bauer, born in Vienna but of Jewish descent. She was The Lady in Gold.
Anne-Marie O’Connor’s book traces the history of the famous painting as well as those whose lives it intersected. The title alone tells part of the story: When the Nazis stole the painting during the war, leaving Bloch-Bauer’s name attached to it would have meant acknowledging that the painting’s subject was Jewish; far simpler then to reduce her to “the lady in gold.” Thus “Adele’s identity disappeared with a simple stroke of the pen.” Sixty years after its theft, the painting became the subject of lengthy litigation between Bloch-Bauer’s surviving family members and the Austrian government, a case that improbably ended up before the U.S. Supreme Court. The painting was ultimately returned to the heirs and sold at auction for a record sum. It’s currently on display in a New York gallery, but O’Connor’s focus is more on the journey than its end point.
The biographical sketches of Klimt, Bloch-Bauer and their families and community are richly drawn. While any book following the plight of Jews in Vienna at the time of the Holocaust will of course be full of sorrows, there are bright spots and humor as well. Having the paintings returned brings nobody back to life, but they do testify to a time when the Jewish elite were not just accepted but celebrated in Vienna. Klimt, derided by critics for “objectifying” women, found them to be his greatest champions for acknowledging and portraying female sexuality. It’s widely known that he carried on affairs with his models, and the historical assumption is that Adele Bloch-Bauer was no exception, but there is no proof to be found. One of Klimt’s grandsons was asked about it and, acknowledging there’s no way to tell, nevertheless added, “I’m certain he tried.”
Part history and part mystery, The Lady in Gold is a striking tale.