Oil and gold on canvas by Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) 54 “x 54”
Sharon Lorenzo’s fifth profile of a single work of art.
Located in a six story beaux-arts mansion on the corner of 86th Street and Fifth Avenue in New York City, the Neue Galerie was built in 1914 as a private home for industrialist William Starr Miller and his family, who sold it at his death to Grace Vanderbilt, widow of Cornelius III. In 1994, cosmetics titan Ronald Lauder bought the space and remodeled it into an art gallery with Serge Sabarsky, an art dealer. In 2001 it opened to house Lauder’s personal art collection which was greatly enhanced by the purchase in 2006 of this portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Viennese artist, Gustav Klimt. Known to many as the Lady in Gold, it took Klimt three years to complete this portrait which was commissioned by Adele’s husband, sugar baron Ferdinand Bloch, for his stately home in Vienna in 1903. Klimt was a well-known member of the Viennese Secession movement which championed unconventional modern means of portraiture and symbolist painting.
The story of how this picture came to reside in New York is a tale of historic and legal intrigue that has been made into both a full biography by journalist Anne- Marie O’Connor as well as a Hollywood movie, The Woman in Gold, directed by Harvey Weinstein. Anne-Marie had been asked by the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Maria Altmann, to write her life’s story which she did with accuracy and diligent research. The Lady in Gold, published by Random House in 2012, chronicles the history of the picture from its inception to its seizure by the Nazis during the annexation of Austria in 1936. Adele had died in 1925 of meningitis and asked that the picture be given to the Austrian State Museum at her death.
When her widower, Ferdinand, fled to Prague then Zurich after the Nazi takeover, the picture was left behind and conveyed to the Belvedere Palace in Vienna for safe keeping by the invaders. In 1945, at Ferdinand’s death, his will directed that all his assets be left to his nieces and nephews, one of whom was Maria Altmann. She retained the legal services of a family friend, E. Randol Schoenberg, who was able to get jurisdiction to sue the Austrian government on her behalf, as the catalog of the Belvedere Palace Collection was in a local Barnes and Noble book store near her residence in California. Legal appeals went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and a final settlement directed that the case be heard in Austria by a panel of judges in a binding arbitration proceeding. The movie portrays Maria representing herself so bravely, asking for this one picture as a remembrance of her family who were all dead after World War II, with all the rest of her property confiscated by the state. Brilliantly portrayed by Helen Mirren in the movie, she won the day, and the painting was awarded to Maria.
Maria Altmann (1916-2011)
Because there were a number of cousins in the inheritance, she decided to sell the picture with Christie’s auction house which secured a $135 million dollar sales price from Ronald Lauder. It was fitting that he had the Neue Galerie in which to share the artwork with the world after its tumultuous journey. Adele’s portrait resides above the regal fireplace in the upper grand living room, a perfect quiet repose for this Viennese “Mona Lisa”. While she is not in Vienna at the Belvedere Palace, most think both Adele and Klimt would be proud to be viewed by so many visitors on Fifth Avenue in New York City today.
Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)