Serena Lederer (after 1903) by Martin GerlachAustrian National Library
Serena Lederer (1867–1943), née Pulitzer, was the wife of the industrialist August Lederer. Like many others who commissioned paintings from Klimt, the Lederers were members of upper-class Jewish society at the time of the Habsburg monarchy in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The family's assets included a distillery in Hungary, but they lived mainly in Vienna. Serena and August Lederer were certainly among Klimt's leading patrons and soon came to possess the biggest collection of his paintings ever to have been held in private ownership.
Painting "Charlotte Pulitzer" (1915) by Gustav Klimt (after 1915) by Moriz NährAustrian National Library
The portrait of Serena Lederer, commissioned in 1899, marked the start of a relationship between the painter and the Lederer family which continued until Klimt's death. They were effectively friends, and this was reflected in the fact that Klimt also painted portraits of Serena's mother, Charlotte Pulitzer, and her daughter, Elisabeth Lederer.
Serena Pulitzer Lederer (1867–1943) (1899) by Gustav KlimtThe Metropolitan Museum of Art
Serena Lederer's portrait can be regarded as early evidence of the mastery that Klimt displayed in painting women and which, over subsequent years, came to represent one of the pinnacles of his creativity. Klimt shows Serena standing, almost life-size and dressed in a long silk gown that falls elegantly to the ground. Apparently Klimt himself selected this Empire-style dress from his sitter's extensive and costly wardrobe.
The dress completely covers the wearer's feet and, in dazzling white, can barely be distinguished from the light-colored, strangely diffuse background.
The contours of the female figure are often only indistinctly hinted at and in some places disappear entirely in the mistiness that envelops the picture.
The subject's face and hair stand out in sharp contrast to these lighter shades, with her dark hair standing out most of all.
Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1903/1907) by Gustav KlimtNeue Galerie New York
In a modified form, this unusual focus on the model's face in isolation was to recur in some of Klimt's later portraits of women, for example in his famous portrait of "Adele Bloch-Bauer".
Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862) by James McNeill WhistlerNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC
During these years, Klimt was clearly influenced by the portraits of the artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who was born in the United States but lived in London and whose works were being shown in exhibitions in Vienna at this time. Whistler also liked to wreathe his portraits in a nebulous atmosphere created by an overall color wash.
It is therefore no surprise that, when Klimt's portrait of Serena Lederer was shown for the first time at a Vienna Secession exhibition, art critics dubbed it the "Symphony in White," by analogy with Whistler's pictures.
Franz Servaes (1908) by Madame d'Ora, AtelierAustrian National Library
The critics were greatly enamored of this new painting style. The well-known journalist and art critic Franz Servaes wrote on the occasion of the first showing of Klimt's portrait in 1901: "What a lovely white flower he has plucked here! And what a charmingly mischievous face looks out from the undulating sweep of white, with the artfully tousled jet-black locks playing impishly around her clear brow. A breath of sweetest womanliness wafts towards us. Surely the very paintbrush itself must have been smitten."