Discovering the Woman in Gold

by Sister Hilda Kleiman, OSB

In her book The Lady In Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (public library), Anne-Marie O'Connor follows the creation and journey of one of Gustav Klimt's most well-known works.

She explores the painting's origins in the sophisticated society of pre-World War II Vienna, its treatment at the hands of the Nazis, and the efforts of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer to regain ownership of the painting from the Austrian government.  It now resides in the Neue Gallerie in New York.

Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Boch-Bauer I

The Nazis not only stole the portrait from Adele's family; they also attempted to erase her identity.  O' Connor explains:
The Nazis had smashed Adele's world like a mirror.  But Vienna still saw itself reflected in its shards.  Even the Nazis were forced to locate the Viennese essence of femininity in the face of a Jewish woman.  To admit this would undermine the great deceit of Aryan racial superiority.  So the gold portrait of Adele became Portrait of a Lady with Gold Background.
A counterfeit of this magnitude was an odd act for a profession [art curators and historians] said to be motivated by a love of art.  They really had no choice.  How could they invoke a respected family that had so recently flourished a short walk down the Ringstrasse?  How could a symbol of Vienna's belle epoque, however iconic, be revealed as a Jewish woman? (179).
 When the family regained possession of the painting, posters were hung around Vienna, bidding Adele good-bye: