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Golden Adele — the Mysterious Muse of Gustav Klimt

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How would you describe this look? As pleading? Defiant? From the portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, it is difficult to judge what was happening behind those translucent dark eyes. This woman was multiply portrayed by the iconic Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Twice did he paint her in the portraits ordered by the family, and there are suggestions that she also posed for the half-naked figure in Judith and Holofernes, and, possibly, for the happy heroine with her eyes closed in The Kiss. It combines depth and mystery. It is Adele who personifies the vulnerability and strength of women in a Viennese society undergoing profound transformations at the turn of the century.
Golden Adele — the Mysterious Muse of Gustav Klimt
Both portraits, including the iconic and controversial Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) and the lesser-known but equally stunning Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912), were last exhibited together in 2016 at Neue Galerie gallery, New York. Images of other women were also presented there, but it is the Golden Adele that embodies the pinnacle of the "golden period" in the work of Klimt.

In post-war Vienna, her image became the embodiment of Austrian culture; the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I has long been called the Austrian Mona Lisa. Later, the painting became a symbol of justice. In 2015, The Woman in Gold was released, a Hollywood version of the story about the confiscation of the canvas from the Bloch-Bauer Jewish family during World War II and the long but ultimately successful struggle for its restitution. Over the past century, many viewers have wondered: who was Adele Bloch-Bauer?
Adele Bauer was born in Vienna in 1881. She was the daughter of a bank and railroad director and rec

Adele Bauer was born in Vienna in 1881. She was the daughter of a bank and railroad director and received a privileged cultural upbringing. The family had seven children, Adele being the youngest. At 19, the girl was married to sugar tycoon Ferdinand Bloch, who was 17 years her senior. The joint wedding photo has not survived. But we got a photo of Adele.
Ferdinand adored his wife so much that he subsequently added her surname to his. Their brother and sister had previously also married and took the double surname Bloch-Bauer with a hyphen. Actually, thanks to this couple, Adele met Ferdinand.

Symphony in Gold

The family paid a lot of attention to art, and not only collected, but also ordered paintings. And the individualist and rebel Gustav Klimt was one of their favourite artists.

The first portrait was originally discussed in a letter that 22-year-old Adele wrote to 41-year-old Klimt in 1903. Ferdinand ordered it as a birthday present for her parents. This happened a few years after Klimt co-founded the Vienna Secession, and shortly after, due to his scandalous, supposedly pornographic frescoes, the University of Vienna refused state orders for the artist.
Adele Bloch-Bauer, c. 1910. Source: BBC
Adele Bloch-Bauer, c. 1910. Source: BBC
The gift was never given: the father died in 1905. And the stunning image of Adele, painted in oil and gold leaf, was first put on public display in 1907. The portrait depicts the flushed heroine with bare shoulders, sitting on a stylized throne. She looks at the viewer with a vulnerability and pride, and her hands are oddly intertwined in the foreground. One of Adele’s fingers was distorted, and she tried to hide it during numerous posing sessions (Klimt created about 200 studies for the portrait).

The background for the picture was a lush riot of sparkling oriental and erotic symbolism — triangles, eyes, eggs. "The portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is a golden symphony, a unique symbolic triumph," said Viennese art critic Tobias Natter. This portrait is considered a masterpiece of Art Nouveau.

The later picture became a dramatic departure from the previous one. "How could Klimt have changed so much?" Natter asks. "Five years later, with the second Adele, he did something completely different, there is a huge stylistic evolution." This time, the artist depicted his heroine with raven hair, in a wide-brimmed black hat, majestically facing the viewer. The background is a picture of bright patterned wallpaper. "What fascinates me about this image is the renewal through the power of colour," the art critic pointed out.

All this luxury

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II. Private collection

Adele Bloch-Bauer appears as a g

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II. Private collection

Adele Bloch-Bauer appears as a grand dame here, but her eyes hide a more mature melancholy. Despite her wealth and privileged position, her fate can hardly be called easy. Niece Maria Altmann, who seized Adele’s portraits from the Austrian state in 2006, recalled her aunt as "a rather cold, intelligent woman". On her own initiative, Adele studied German, English and French classical literature. "She was well versed in politics and was a socialist. But she was not happy. It was an arranged marriage, it was childless after two miscarriages and the death of a child", Altmann said. "I remember her very elegant, tall, dark-haired and thin. She always wore silk white dresses and smoked through a long gold cigarette holder".

Gustav Klimt’s women exude not only sensual eroticism, but also strength and confidence. Critics and art historians have called Klimt Frauenversteher, a ladies' man, for decades. Many believe that he had a long affair with Adele. There is even a legend according to which Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer ordered the artist a portrait of his wife after learning about their relationship. The offended husband allegedly wanted the lovers to spend so much time together that they soon became disgusted with each other.

However, this story has no confirmation.

And in Klimt’s paintings, his muse Adele Bloch-Bauer always seems aloof, majestic and even sublime.

In Adele’s life, there was at least one area in which she significantly excelled. Like many other representatives of the Viennese Jewish bourgeoisie who posed for Klimt, she wielded considerable social and intellectual power as the owner of her salon. For example, one of her "colleagues" was Berta Zuckerkandl. She had a lower social background, but she became famous as the "puppeteer of the Viennese cultural scene", as many creative connections were formed thanks to her. It was Berta who introduced Klimt to Auguste Rodin, and the creation of the Secession was almost certainly discussed in her living room.
Other intellectuals and friends of Klimt were Serena Lederer and her daughter Elisabeth, Baroness Bachofen-Echt. Both of them posed for the artist, and Serena collected the then largest private collection of his works within 40 years. From 1900, Klimt began to focus on women as the heroines of his work.

The weekly salons of Adele Bloch-Bauer were visited by composers Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, writer Stefan Zweig. Later, her doctor Julius Tandler, who was also a politician who advocated the construction of social housing and state benefits, influenced Adele’s views on social reform and women’s rights.

Klimt’s portraits of women from that period reflect not only the shifting role of women in society, but also the importance of fashion and design not only from an artistic, but also from a social point of view. For most of the sketches made for Adele Bloch-Bauer I, the model posed in a stunning pleated but completely uncorsetted, loose and flowing "Reformation" dress, which was worn by bourgeois ladies with progressive views at that time.
  • Gustav Klimt, sketch
    A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
    So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
    for the Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1903). Jewish Museum, New York
  • Gustav Klimt, sketch
    A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
    So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
    for the Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1903). Neue Galerie, New York
In addition to two Klimt’s portraits of Adele, the Bloch-Bauers also acquired four landscapes and drawings from the artist. The couple were proud of their art collection, which included works by other famous Austrian artists (for example, paintings by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller). In 1919, after the couple moved into their new property on Elisabethstrasse next to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Adele set up a room dedicated to Klimt. It was a real sanctuary: paintings on the walls, photos of the artist on the table.
Ex-libris for Adele Bloch-Bauer created by Koloman Moser
Ex-libris for Adele Bloch-Bauer created by Koloman Moser
In 1918, when Austria-Hungary collapsed, Ferdinand and Adele decided to take Czech citizenship, being the owners of a manor house with a park in Panenské Břežany, 20 km north of Prague. There was their summer residence (the Praguestalker wrote about it), and Vienna was still their home.
When her mother deceased, Adele thought about the time when she would no longer be. She drew up her will, in which, among other things, stipulated impressive sums for charitable purposes, and left orders about the paintings — those that would be challenged later.


Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1920
Photo source: wikimedia
Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1920
Photo source: wikimedia
Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1920
Photo source: wikimedia
Adele Bloch-Bauer, 1920
Photo source: wikimedia
Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, 1935
Photo source: wikimedia
Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, 1935
Photo source: wikimedia
Oskar Kokoschka. Portrait of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. 1936
Oskar Kokoschka. Portrait of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. 1936
Adele Bloch-Bauer died of meningitis in 1925, only 43 years old. According to her desire, the body was cremated — this secular lady had long turned away from her religion, Judaism, affected by the death of her beloved brother Karl from pneumonia when she was 15. Perhaps fate was not cruel and took pity on Adele, not allowing her to live to see the dark times that began in Austria in the 1930s. After death, the sanctuary room in honour of Klimt remained untouched as during her life. When the country was annexed by the German National Socialists in 1938, works from the Bloch-Bauer collection, including images of Adele, were confiscated. Both portraits by Klimt became the property of the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, where they remained till 2006, until they returned to Maria Altmann, the only surviving direct relative of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, Adele’s niece.

In total, five paintings by Klimt were returned to her. However, in addition to the paintings, Altmann received exorbitant insurance and storage costs. She sold the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I to Ronald Lauder, heir to the Estée Lauder cosmetic empire
Empire (fr. empire – imperial) is the style of the late classicism in architecture, applied art and painting. It was popular during the first three decades of the 19th century.
It is characterized by the craving for monumentality and greatness: so that it immediately becomes clear to everyone that the emperor’s power is almost limitless! The Empire style arose in France during the reign of Napoleon, later it was replaced by the eclectic art movements currents and then itfound its revival in ... the Soviet Union. Read more
and founder of the Neue Galerie, where the painting became part of the permanent exhibition. The second portrait, as well as three landscapes by Klimt, were sold at Christie’s.
In April 2016, one of the streets near Vienna Central train station was named Bloch-Bauer Promenade in honour of Adele and Ferdinand. "Austria misses the paintings very much, especially Adele Bloch-Bauer I. But now they belong to the whole world," says Natter.
Based on materials from the BBC, jwa.org