The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauerby Anne-Marie O'Connor
The spellbinding storypart fairy tale, part suspenseof Gustav Klimt's most famous painting, one of the most emblematic portraits of its time: the beautiful, seductive Viennese Jewish salon hostess who sat for it; the notorious, "degenerate'' artist who painted it; the now vanished turn-of-the-century Vienna that shaped it; and the strange twisted
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The spellbinding storypart fairy tale, part suspenseof Gustav Klimt's most famous painting, one of the most emblematic portraits of its time: the beautiful, seductive Viennese Jewish salon hostess who sat for it; the notorious, "degenerate'' artist who painted it; the now vanished turn-of-the-century Vienna that shaped it; and the strange twisted fate that befell it.
The Washington Post
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Excerpted from the Hardcover edition
Poems and Privilege
It was 1898, and the devil himself seemed to dance in Vienna.
The mistress of Emperor Franz Joseph was Vienna's premier actress, Katharina Schratt, and she was threatening to retire from the stage unless the Imperial Burgtheater staged a scandalous Arthur Schnitzler play that glamorized free love. Vienna's most acclaimed star couldn't possibly be allowed to step down in the Jubilee Year, the fiftieth anniversary of the reign of the Austro-Hungarian monarch. So when the curtains opened on Schnitzler's Veil of Beatrice, the emperor personally saw to it that his mistress was onstage in a black veil, in the role of the seduced woman.
If it had once been unthinkable for the Austrian emperor to publicly indulge the whims of a common actress, Vienna was now a hothouse where nothing seemed impossible.
For hundreds of years, the great Habsburg dynasty had reigned over this crossroad of East and West. Behind immense battlements, its frilly court united German, Italian, Polish, Czech, Hungarian, and Croatian aristocracies into a single royal house whose multicultural capital was as ornate as a Fabergé egg. Even their German acquired elaborate embellishments and a lilting cadence, softened by Italian and French, and Baroque exhortations to kuss die hand. This culture of pleasure was so unabashed that one Habsburg archduke declared wine "the principal nourishment of the city of Vienna."
Now Vienna's ancient ramparts had come tumbling down, and a new wave of newcomers was crowding in from Bohemia, Moravia, Galicia, and Transylvania. You could hear a dozen languages in a single street-or a single tavern.
This new Vienna was a city of contradictions. It was one of Europe's richest cities, yet its immigrants were among the poorest. The construction of opulent new palaces did little to hide a severe housing shortage. Vienna doctors were creating modern medicine-pioneering surgeries; discovering germs, the polio virus, and blood types-yet incurable syphilis spread unchecked. Sigmund Freud was illuminating hidden drives of sex and aggression at a time of xenophobia and anti- Semitism so crude that some believed Jews murdered children to leaven their matzoh with blood. Famed for its gaiety, "the sacred city of musicians" had the highest suicide rate in Europe.
The hallowed house of Habsburg, which produced the kings of the Holy Roman Empire and boasted such ancestors as Julius Caesar and Nero, seemed to be coming apart. Emperor Franz Joseph was carrying on with an actress. His wife, Empress Elisabeth, detested court life and spent her time traveling the continent, earning a reputation as Europe's most famous liberated woman. His brother, Maximilian, playfully donned a sombrero during an ill-fated adventure as emperor of Mexico that ended with his execution by firing squad. His wife, Charlotte, went mad in a Belgian castle.
The dynasty that had united Europe and the Americas had become the empire's premier dysfunctional family.
Arrivistes were upending the social order. Prominent Jewish men like Gustav Mahler-who converted to Catholicism to qualify for an imperial post as director of the Vienna State Opera-were somehow becoming eligible bachelors, chased by wealthy Catholic society girls. The intoxicating waltz was throwing Viennese maidens into the arms of strangers. "African and hot-blooded, crazy with life...restless...passionate," wrote an appalled director of the Burgtheater. "The devil is loose here...in one single night, the Viennese went with him."
Yet even in this "Gay Apocalypse," Vienna maintained a deeply old- fashioned charm, with its snow-covered palaces and strolling parks, its aromatic cafés and seductive pastry carts piled with petit fours and chocolate bonbons filled with sweet liqueur. Possessed of a childlike love of adornment, Vienna was a city where gilded iron roses climbed balconies and stone goddesses framed doorways; where gargoyles glared from cornices and Herculean men bared their immense chests from façades.
Even the empire's military was as festive as a marching band, with Emperor Franz Joseph in scarlet trousers trimmed with gold braid, his officers and hussars strutting through Vienna in uniforms in purple, salmon, and powder blue, festooned with red lanyards and long plumes trailing from their helmets.
In 1898, Vienna was a place where illusions could
still be preserved by well-to-do families like the Bauers, who gathered at their elegant apartment above the Ringstrasse on a March afternoon when the musky sweetness of lilacs filled the damp air.
Adele Bauer was standing before the family in a white Grecian robe, revealing a slender frame as long and delicate as a vase. Her thick dark hair fell to her waist. At sixteen, Adele was crossing that mysterious line between girl and woman. Dressed as the spirit of Spring, she held a wicker cornucopia filled with spring blossoms and sheaves. With her poise and regal bearing and her dark, heavily lidded eyes, Adele might have been an actress, like Katharina Schratt, who ruled a few steps down the Ringstrasse, at the Burgtheater. For now, Bauer family gatherings were the stage for Adele, the pampered youngest child of Viennese banker Moritz Bauer.
Today Adele would read a poem in honor of a family wedding. In two days, her sister, Therese Bauer, would solemnize her union with Gustav Bloch, the jovial son of a prominent Czech sugar baron. So there was a dynastic air to the proceedings in the Bauer parlor, a great room richly furnished with gilded mirrors, the framed portraits of family ancestors, and an ornate clock, adorned with a golden Roman chariot.
Bauer family celebrations always had a touch of theater. Friends played music while guests waltzed. A special poem elevated the atmosphere from the realm of the ordinary, inviting guests to share the deeper significance of the moment.
The room grew still.
"Do you recognize me? Must I introduce myself?" Adele began, in a low, rich voice, with an air of intrigue. "Do you know who is speaking to you?
"I bring you joy, I bring you lust for life! I chase away your sorrow and grief. In a word, I am the Good Spirit of the house." This slip of a girl did look like a spirit; or a long-limbed water sprite, or a lithe Muse from an Etruscan urn.
Gustav Bloch smiled at his bride-to-be, Therese, the very proper sister of Adele. Gustav, a handsome man with a thick mustache, had wooed Therese with the intricate courtesies suitable to the old- fashioned daughter of an established banker.
Gustav's brother, Ferdinand, standing beside him, eyed Adele. Ferdinand was poised to take over his Czech father's sugar beet industry. Sugar barons were the oil sheiks of pastry-mad Vienna, their wealth increasing with every surge in the price of the white gold. Ferdinand was twice Adele's age. He was a kind, homely bachelor who collected fussy eighteenth-century porcelain. Serious and methodical, Ferdinand was as different from his café-loving brother as Therese was from her literary, artistically inclined sister.
The conventional Therese would straighten out Ferdinand's bon vivant of a brother. But her sister! Adele looked like a charming little pagan goddess.
"I am a creature of this house, which I have always loved, always inhabited, and seldom left," Adele was reciting. "My worst enemy is the sadness that drove me away." Ferdinand suffered from periodic melancholy. He listened more closely.
"But you see that I emerged the stronger one!" Adele said, with theatrical triumph. "And how do I return? Whole and strong, with all the Might that I can muster.
"How much do I love to see you here? You can see it in my shining eyes, in my flushed cheeks. My masterpiece is you, gathered here," Adele said with rising emotion, as the guests smiled.
Ferdinand was hooked. How had his distracted brother managed to betroth himself to this charming Viennese family?
"As my little Ghosts foretold," Adele said, "Happiness has moved in with the Bauers."
Ferdinand's eyes wandered to a sepia portrait of Adele's mother in a heavy gilded frame, dressed in the daring pre-Victorian manner, her gown falling far from her thin shoulders, and baring a touch of décolletage. Adele obviously took after her mother.
"Is it not true that little Cupid, with his bow and arrow, has made an excellent shot?" Adele asked, taking Gustav and Therese by the hand. "I feel it, in the beating of my heart; in the blood that runs through my veins; I feel it in the hot streak of luck that shoots through me!"
The poem was long. Guests shifted on their feet impatiently, thinking of the champagne and roast beef to come. Ferdinand wondered if he could arrange to be seated near Adele.
"Suddenly, I have lost my words!" Adele stalled mischievously. "My desires rise to my lips, inside me my feelings are in turmoil, and every emotion clamors to emerge at once!"
Waiters were bringing fluted glasses.
"But the hausfrau is giving me an annoyed look," Adele said, smiling
at her mother. "She wants you to sample her culinary skills. The man of the house would like you to judge his vintages of wine. Therefore, I will go now.
"I call out to you, with all the force of my lungs, and even more: Long live the bride and groom!"
Everyone raised a glass. The deserving but dour Ferdinand made a silent toast to the dazzling woman-child in white, the bewitching embodiment of youth and hope.
Not far from Adele's sheltered world, the finest painter in Austria was charting a collision course with the Vienna art establishment.
Gustav Klimt still didn't seem the rebel as he held court at his daily haunt, the Café Tivoli, at the foot of the gardens of the Schönbrunn Castle. Every morning Klimt downed strong coffee and ordered an enormous breakfast. "Whipped cream played a major role," along with Gugelhopf, a rich cake of rum, raisins, and cherries in the shape of a Turkish turban, recalled the painter Carl Moll, who sat at the open-air table with Klimt and their fellow artists, plotting the future of Austrian art.
Klimt was becoming a celebrity. When he strode into Vienna's Café Central, heads turned. Women found him alluring. His massive athletic frame, tanned face, and boldly direct glance distinguished him from the prissier dandies of upper-class Vienna, who paid careful attention to their dress and the figure they cut. Klimt exuded the natural sexual charisma of a man comfortable in his own skin.
Klimt's friends called him König-the King.
At thirty-five, Klimt was a king, of the Vienna art world. By the time he was in his midtwenties, Emperor Franz Joseph had awarded him the golden service cross, and had personally congratulated him for his staircase murals in Vienna's Imperial Burgtheater, or "Castle Theater," the monumental new building for one of the greatest stages in the Germanic world. Klimt's decorative paintings of Greek myths, Norse legends, and heroic women adorned palaces, spas, and theaters throughout the empire.
To outsiders, Klimt seemed to lead a charmed life. People were calling him the heir to Vienna's late "prince of painters," Hans Makart, a romantic painter of scenes of Romeo and Juliet, wood nymphs, knights, and troubadours. Makart had turned his studio into a salon for wealthy women, flattering them with unctuous portraits and romantic attention, until he died, ravaged by syphilis, in 1884.
A comparison to Makart was a heady designation for a man who had stayed away from grammar school as a boy because his family was too poor to replace his shabby clothes. In the years when Klimt aspired to be no more than an art teacher, such acclaim would have been beyond his wildest ambitions.
Klimt admired Makart, of course, and acknowledged his influence. But he wasn't interested in following in his footsteps as an artistic courtier of official Vienna. He was restless in the gilded cage of a state-sanctioned artist.
The lucrative work had lifted him from desperate poverty. But he bristled at the conventional world he now inhabited. The provincial prejudices of the Viennese aristocrats who courted him only fed his brewing rebellion against his own success.
In the privacy of his lush walled garden studio, Klimt had begun to reach into his own psyche. He was experimenting with Symbolism, a French movement that used mythical figures and psychologically charged symbols. Its proponents had a particular fascination with strong female figures. They rediscovered a neglected portrait, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, and resurrected it as a masterpiece of the "eternal feminine."
Klimt was gravitating to new patrons, self-made Viennese industrialists, many of them Jewish, who were buying the innovative new art that state museums rejected. To this emerging elite, Klimt was something of a sex symbol. His charisma was enhanced by his devil- may-care impatience with the hypocrisies of Viennese society. In this Janus-faced world, men of distinguished lineage hid their indiscretions with prostitutes, or their "sweet girls" from the lower social orders, while respectable women were expected to pretend not to like sex.
Klimt liked women.
At a time when open female sensuality was disdained as an aberration or a "hysteria" to be treated, Klimt's elegantly erotic line drawings, more whispered about than seen, made it clear he understood the sexual desires of women. "The erotic neurasthenia that vibrates in many of his most deeply felt drawings is filled with his most profound and painful experience," wrote art historian Hans Tietze of this "refined man of nature, a mixture of satyr and ascetic."
Women far above Klimt in social status were disarmed by his direct, irreverent manner, his burning stare and deep baritone. His magnetism was enhanced by the kind of powerful physique more typical of a woodcutter or a sailor. Klimt did nothing to discourage his image of roguish virility.
Yet his work habits were rigidly ascetic. He lived with his mother and sisters. He woke at first light, sometimes at his studio on Josefstädterstrasse, then set out on a brisk walk across Vienna for his hearty breakfast at the Café Tivoli. He returned to his studio for long days of painting, taking breaks to exercise with barbells.
Klimt's influences were Viennese. In an era when gold symbolized imperial power, he let the reflections of the herculean golden globes and statues perched on Vienna buildings bleed into his paintings. In a Vienna in which even psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud sifted through the black market for Egyptian antiquities, Klimt incorporated exotic motifs from North Africa and sketched the ubiquitous sphinxes scattered through imperial palaces.
But it was women who fascinated Klimt, and women who were emerging as his patrons and champions. In a class-stratified, anti-Semitic Vienna crowded with pretentious royalty, Klimt began to accept commissions to paint portraits of women from the new Jewish intellectual families. The women in these families lived in a world of ideas. Some knew Freud personally and weren't shocked by his belief that subconscious sexual desires burned beneath Vienna's embellished façade. These women were not born into their place in society; they were creating it.
Perhaps Klimt saw something of himself in them.
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Meet the Author
ANNE-MARIE O'CONNOR attended Vassar College, studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute, and graduated from University of California, Berkeley. She was a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times for twelve years and wrote extensively on the Klimt painting and the family's efforts to recover the collection. Her articles have appeared in Esquire, The Nation, and The Christian Science Monitor. She currently writes for The Washington Post from Mexico City, where her husband, William Booth, is the Post bureau chief.
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