Adele Bauer (1881-1925) was born into a prominent Viennese Jewish banking family. In 1899, she married the wealthy sugar magnate, Ferdinand Bloch (1864-1945); he was seventeen years her senior. She was twenty-six years old when this portrait was completed. Adele was a member of cultured Viennese society and an enthusiast of contemporary art; she was intelligent, although like most women of her day, she was denied a university education. She maintained a salon that was frequented by Vienna's artistic, intellectual, and political elite. The Bloch-Bauers took strong interest in the work of Klimt. Klimt started making sketches of Adele in 1903, and more than one hundred preparatory drawings survive. Rumors of a romance between the artist and the socialite abound, but no concrete evidence of a liaison has been documented.
The completed portrait is a masterpiece of Klimt's "Golden Style." Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was first publicly displayed in Mannheim the year it was finished, and at the 1908 "Kunstschau" in Vienna. Among its memorable reviews was one in the Neues Wiener Tagblatt that cleverly characterized the work as "Mehr Blech als Bloch" (more brass than Bloch). Regally dressed and enthroned on an upholstered armchair decorated with spirals, Adele gazes out dreamily with a rather sultry air.
In 1903, Klimt visited the Italian town of Ravenna, where he admired the Byzantine mosaics at the church of San Vitale, especially the image of Empress Theodora, glittering before an abstract gold background—"mosaics of unprecedented splendor," as he wrote to Emilie Flöge. Adele's flushed face, full lips, and fine-veined porcelain flesh are realistic depictions embedded in ceremonial, gold ornament—evoking not only such Byzantine mosaics, but Russian icons as well. Adele's slender fingers join her hands: the right hand is curiously folded at the wrist, hiding her malformed middle finger. A halo-shaped swirl of stylized cells and spirals surrounds her head and giving Adele an almost saint-like appearance.
The artist, who was oriented to the applied arts through his background and training, applied gold paint over gesso for a three-dimensional textural relief on the sitter's golden bracelets and her initials, "A" and "B." The raised decorative motifs on her robe and coat, which function almost like a kind of protective armor, add a sensuous plasticity to the work. The various ornaments indicate a symbolic content in the painting, leading to much conjecture: the "god's eye" on her dress is a testament to Klimt's interest in Egyptian art. The joining half-moon shapes may allude to female genitalia. Soft forms alternate with hard ones in an ongoing dialogue. The rectilinear border of black-and-white squares over the green baseboard in the lower right, the red outlined squares to the right of Adele's face, and the two silver squares over the stippled gold background counterbalance the organic shapes that are scattered throughout the composition. This commission is a superb example of the seamless synergy that took place between the fine and applied arts in fin-de-siècle Vienna. The work is a daring investigation into the paradox of reality versus illusion. The purposeful interplay of nearly palpable flesh and abstract ornamental gold ground is a clear foray into a modernist approach, based on the "primitive" sensibilities of the past. The subject and her husband were obviously pleased with the painting: the artist was given an unprecedented second commission, which he completed in 1912.