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The long journey of Klimt's masterwork 'The Lady in Gold'

A detail of Gustav Klimt's 'Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.'
A detail of Gustav Klimt's 'Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.'
Estate of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer

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Gustav Klimt's "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" is a work layered with meanings. The apogee of fin-de-siècle Viennese Symbolist painting and an exquisite distillation of feminine beauty, the work also represents the tragic story of Jewish dispossession at the hands of the Nazis.

Klimt's subject for the painting, Adele Bloch-Bauer, was a member of the Jewish intelligentsia who dominated cultural and artistic life in Vienna at the turn of the century. Like many other artists and musicians, Klimt relied on this milieu for patronage, a link that would later be criticized by anti-Semitic critics such as Adolf Hitler.

"In the minds of anti-Semites, the support from the Jewish intelligentsia to the modern artist would become linked ... Their relationship to people like Klimt were essential to him, especially the women," explained Washington Post writer Anne-Marie O'Connor, who wrote "The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, 'Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.'"

Ironically, however, Klimt was celebrated by the Nazis despite being intimately connected with this Jewish milieu. But in order to proudly display his work as a Nazi symbol, some changes had to be made.

"They were well aware of Klimt's history, the symbiotic relationship with Jewish women," said O'Connor. "Now they were supposed to be presenting the Aryan face of Germanic culture as opposed to degenerate art and degenerate culture which was linked to Judaism." The unconvincing solution was to rename the works with descriptive titles. Thus, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer" became "Lady in Gold.""

After the Nazi seizure of power, some surviving members of the Bloch-Bauer family, including Adele's niece Maria Altmann, escaped to the U.S. But it wasn't until the 1990s that Altmann sought restitution of her family's stolen assets.

As O'Connor discovered, it was the investigative reporting of Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin that revealed how several paintings in the Austrian National Museum had been acquired under dubious circumstances. In the case of the Adele Bloch-Bauer portrait, it had been delivered to the museum in the 1940s with a note saying, "Heil Hitler," and not donated according to Adele's will as Maria had been told.

With the aid of her lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg, Altmann took the case to the Supreme Court, which ruled in her favor in 2004 and restored several famous works previously owned by her family, including the Adele portrait. Contrary to expectations, the ruling was met with widespread approval in Austria. As O'Connor explained, "It's important to note, according to opinion polls, most Austrians supported the restitution ... Austria has lost paintings but they have gained an understanding of their history."

This year, Austria has minted a new coin to commemorate Klimt's continued importance for Austrian identity. With Klimt's image on one side and Adele Bloch-Bauer's on the other, the coin illustrates the Austrian engagement with their complicated past.

"They could have used another image," said O'Connor. "They could have used another painting, but they chose the image of this painting [Adele's], to me that seemed very significant."


Anne-Marie O'Connor is author of the book "The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, 'Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.'"

Read an excerpt of the book below: