Painting of the Day

13 Dec


Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. By Gustav Klimt (1862-1918). Oil, silver, and gold on canvas, 1907. Currently on view at the Neue Galerie, NYC.

Notes from

This painting, which took three years to complete, was commissioned by the wealthy industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, who made his money in the sugar industry. Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer favored the arts, especially Klimt, and commissioned him to complete another portrait of his wife Adele in 1912. Adele Bloch-Bauer was the only person to be painted twice by Klimt. This painting is perhaps most famous not for its artistic quality, but because of its scandalous history since inception. Upon her death, Adele Bloch-Bauer wished the painting to be given to the Austrian State Gallery, but it was seized by advancing German forces in World War II. In 1945, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer designated the paintings to be the property of his nephew and nieces, including Maria Altmann. Nonetheless, the Austrian government retained ownership of the painting, and was not returned to the Altmann family until 2006 after a long court battle. The painting was then sold at auction for $135 million dollars, which at that time was the highest price paid at auction for a painting.

New York Times article about the provenance of the painting

Additional notes from

The influence of Egyptian art on Klimt is undoubtedly at work in this portrait of the wife of the industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. He twice commissioned Klimt to paint a portrait of Adele. This painting, made at the height of Klimt’s career, prompted critics to coin the phrase ‘Mehr Blech wie Bloch’, a pun meaning more brass (i.e., money) than Bloch.

The portrait is notable for the mix of naturalism, in the painting of the face and hands, and the ornamental decoration used for the dress, chair and background. Like Judith I The way in which the decoration cuts across the shoulders and forearms creates an impression of mutilation. Since Adele, the subject of both of these works, was one of Klimt’s mistresses, it is difficult not to look for a psychological reason for the disjointing of the head and body.

My comments:

I find it interesting that the notes say with such certainty that this painting reveals the influence of Egyptian art on Klimt; I’ve personally never heard that idea before, and I have read books about the painting (titled The Lady in Gold) and studied it in AP Art History. But if we assume that there was an Egyptian influence on Klimt, and that he used that inspiration in this painting, I suppose there are some elements of the painting that could be considered Egyptian–but if there was an influence, it wasn’t as profound or extreme as, say, the “primitive” influence of African cultures on Picasso or Gauguin. The body of Adele in the painting does have a very flat quality, as figures in Egyptian wall art do, but that flatness is not completely extended into the head and face of Adele. Her face is also different from that of typical Egyptian art figures because it does have an expression, although it’s mysterious; Egyptian figures’ faces are almost always nondescript (I’m not an Egyptologist, but in all the Egyptian art I’ve seen I’ve never seen any emotions conveyed in the faces. A few things that do link this painting to Egyptian art, however, are the symbol-like and geometric shapes that cover Adele’s dress and are dispersed through the background (which as an aside contains a few places where there are the initials AB for the sitter’s name). These are reminiscent of hieroglyphs. The use of precious metals (silver and gold) in the painting are also somewhat connect to Egyptian art, I suppose since they used the finest materials for the sarcophagi of pharaohs; similarly, Adele is married to a very wealthy husband who cherished her and so he wanted to dedicate fine materials to her portrayal.

When you see this painting in real life, you’ll notice that the eye symbols on Adele’s dress are slightly raised from the canvas, making it almost three-dimensional. In real life, the painting appears as a large square, and Adele’s face does not appear at eye level. As a result, it’s hard for viewers, I think, to relate to her; encased in a gold cocoon, she herself seems like a precious jewel rather than an actual human being. Based on what I’ve read I wouldn’t say that Adele’s husband necessarily treated her like an object, and it’s not as if she is so depressed that she lacks life and sort of “becomes” an object, or a body without a soul, since World War I and II hadn’t occurred yet to rob her of her humanity. But in many ways this picture represents the charmed, worry-free life full of nothing serious but only beauty that Adele experienced living in Vienna at the fin-du-siecle, a time of decadence, extravagance, and ornate, delicate beauty, especially for the wealthy, successful jewish population that lived in the Austrian capital at that time and to which Adele belonged. It’s almost too horrible to think about how in just a few years, all of that would change.

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