Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I"

By Neue Galerie New York

Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1903/1907) by Gustav KlimtNeue Galerie New York

Gustav Klimt’s 1907 "Adele Bloch-Bauer I" is his most famous portrait and the pinnacle of his “Golden Style.” It can be read as a secular icon and includes African, Asian, Byzantine, and Egyptian references. 

Gustav Klimt, holding a cat in his arm (c. 1911) by Moriz NährWien Museum

The genesis for this picture dates back to 1903 when sugar industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer commissioned Klimt to paint a portrait of his wife, Adele. 

Adele Bloch-Bauer, Seated in an Armchair Facing Forward, Resting Her Temple on her Right Hand (1903) by Gustav KlimtNeue Galerie New York

Klimt began work that winter and labored over the painting for four years, creating numerous sketches in the process. 

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In December 1903, Klimt travelled to Italy, where he admired the mid-6th century Byzantine mosaics depicting the Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora at the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, praising their “unprecedented splendor."

Adele Bloch-Bauer, Seated in an Armchair Facing Left (1903) by Gustav KlimtNeue Galerie New York

In the preparatory sketches and in the finished portrait, Klimt depicts Adele wearing loose-fitting dresses. 

Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge (around 1909) by H. BöhlerAustrian National Library

These fashionable dresses were probably made at the Schwestern Flöge Fashion Salon, a chic boutique managed by Klimt’s sister-in-law, Emilie Flöge, and her sisters Helene and Pauline. 

Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1903/1907) by Gustav KlimtNeue Galerie New York

Klimt presents Adele in an ambiguous pose—it is unclear if she is standing or seated in an armchair that is covered in sinuous spirals. 

A golden and highly ornamented halo surrounds her face. Her flushed cheeks and rouged lips convey the sensuality of the woman behind the portrait. 

Adele Bloch-Bauer is bedecked in precious jewelry, including a diamond choker that had been a wedding present from Ferdinand.

Her gown is adorned with all-seeing eye motifs and golden triangles, perhaps incorporated for amuletic purposes since Adele was beset with health issues throughout her life.

The diaphanous cloak that surrounds her is studded with her initials “AB,” raised in low relief.

Adele’s hands are clasped in an unusual fashion to conceal a disfigured finger about which she was extremely self-conscious.

Gold and silver shimmer across the highly ornamented surface, creating a flat impression. A patch of green in the lower left corner balances the composition formally, but does suggest any depth of field. Only her corporeal body appears realistic—a hallmark of Klimt’s portraiture.

“Internationale Kunstausstellung” (International Art Show), Mannheim, 1907Neue Galerie New York

The portrait was unveiled in Mannheim at the 1907 “Internationale Kunstausstellung” (International Art Show) and later shown at the 1908 “Kunstschau” (Art Show) in Vienna. Critical reaction was both favorable—"an idol in a golden shrine”—and less so, with one critic deriding it as “more brass than Bloch.”

Adele Bloch-Bauer, ca. 1910Neue Galerie New York

In January 1925, Adele died of meningitis at age forty-three. In her will, Adele expressed a “wish” that her Klimt portrait be donated to the Austrian Gallery, today the Belvedere in Vienna.

The Bloch-Bauer assets were seized when the Nazis invaded Austria in March 1938. Ferdinand fled to Switzerland. He tried in vain to regain his property before his death in November 1945. In his will, he bequeathed his estate to his nephew and two nieces, one of whom was the Viennese-born Maria Altmann, who emigrated to Los Angeles.

Neue Galerie Director Renée Price and President and Co-Founder Ronald S. Lauder with Maria AltmannNeue Galerie New York

Efforts to reclaim the Bloch-Bauer fortune were unsuccessful until the 1998 Art Restitution Law was enacted in Austria. After years of legal disputes, an Austrian arbitration panel ruled in favor of the Bloch-Bauer heirs in January 2006. Klimt’s "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" was then acquired by the Neue Galerie New York.

Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch- Bauer I (1907) on display at Neue Galerie New YorkNeue Galerie New York

Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch- Bauer I remains on permanent view at Neue Galerie New York.

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