In the portrait of Sonja Knips completed in 1897 or 1898, a young Klimt sets his high artistic standards in portraiture for the first time. Particularly notable is the new style of painting demonstrated, with significant influences from the already famous American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Among other things, it involves a soft, sfumato application of color reminiscent of pastels, making the contours appear slightly blurred. This technique is used to particularly good effect in the soft material of the silk dress. The ambiguous, secretive look the model fixates on her viewer is also notable. As with many women Klimt painted portraits of over the years, the special relationship the painter had with the model also remains a mystery. In fact, Sonja Knips (1873–1959), née Freifrau Potier des Echelles, had already been friends with Klimt for a while. When her portrait was unveiled, she was currently married to successful industrialist Anton Knips. She later acquired additional works by the artist.
The portrait of Sonja Knips was presented to the public at the second exhibition of the Vienna Secession from November to December 1898. It was the first example of the "new style" Klimt set upon to distance himself from the academic realism of his early works.