The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

by Anne-Marie O'Connor

Paperback, 2015




Vintage (2015), Edition: Reprint, 368 pages


Art. History. Nonfiction. HTML:The spellbinding story, part fairy tale, part suspense, of Gustav Klimt‚??s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, one of the most emblematic portraits of its time; of the beautiful, seductive Viennese Jewish salon hostess who sat for it; the notorious artist who painted it; the now vanished turn-of-the-century Vienna that shaped it; and the strange twisted fate that befell it.   The Lady in Gold, considered an unforgettable masterpiece, one of the twentieth century‚??s most recognizable paintings, made headlines all over the world when Ronald Lauder bought it for $135 million a century after Klimt, the most famous Austrian painter of his time, completed the society portrait.   Anne-Marie O‚??Connor, writer for The Washington Post, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, tells the galvanizing story of the Lady in Gold, Adele Bloch-Bauer, a dazzling Viennese Jewish society figure; daughter of the head of one of the largest banks in the Hapsburg Empire, head of the Oriental Railway, whose Orient Express went from Berlin to Constantinople; wife of Ferdinand Bauer, sugar-beet baron.   The Bloch-Bauers were art patrons, and Adele herself was considered a rebel of fin de si√®cle Vienna (she wanted to be educated, a notion considered ‚??degenerate‚?Ě in a society that believed women being out in the world went against their feminine ‚??nature‚?Ě). The author describes how Adele inspired the portrait and how Klimt made more than a hundred sketches of her‚??simple pencil drawings on thin manila paper.   And O‚??Connor writes of Klimt himself, son of a failed gold engraver, shunned by arts bureaucrats, called an artistic heretic in his time, a genius in ours.   She writes of the Nazis confiscating the portrait of Adele from the Bloch-Bauers‚?? grand palais; of the Austrian government putting the painting on display, stripping Adele‚??s Jewish surname from it so that no clues to her identity (nor any hint of her Jewish origins) would be revealed. Nazi officials called the painting, The Lady in Gold and proudly exhibited it in Vienna‚??s Baroque Belvedere Palace, consecrated in the 1930s as a Nazi institution.   The author writes of the painting, inspired by the Byzantine mosaics Klimt had studied in Italy, with their exotic symbols and swirls, the subject an idol in a golden shrine.   We see how, sixty years after it was stolen by the Nazis, the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer became the subject of a decade-long litigation between the Austrian government and the Bloch-Bauer heirs, how and why the U.S. Supreme Court became involved in the case, and how the Court‚??s decision had profound ramifications in the art world.   A riveting social history; an illuminating and haunting look at turn-of-the-century Vienna; a brilliant portrait of the evolution of a painter; a masterfully told tale of suspense. And at the heart of it, the Lady in Gold‚??the shimmering painting, and its equally irresistible su… (more)


½ (82 ratings; 3.8)

User reviews

LibraryThing member jcbrunner
2012 marks the 150th anniversary of Gustav Klimt, one of Austria's most famous painters. Personally, I find Klimt a mean portraitist as the gold and illustrations distract from the token face of the person portrayed. In contrast to Schiele and others, the person portrayed is not given sufficient
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prominence - which partially explains Klimt's success in posters and postcards, as the token portrayed's place can be filled in by anybody.

Klimt's anniversary is celebrated with ten different exhibitions in Austria, which shows both that Vienna's museums are unwilling to cooperate and coordinate among themselves and that Klimt's work is overrepresented in Austria and underrepresented abroad. During the last years, Klimt has been in the news mostly because of the struggle for the restitution of the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, duly reported by the author of this book for the Los Angeles Times. Unfortunately her account is very partisan. "Audiatur et altera pars" is not something she seems to be aware of. She also fails to evaluate the information collected. The author further has an unfortunate tendency to conflate a person's English language skills with that person's intelligence and friendliness, e.g. I would hesitate to interpret the graveyard gardener's responses as hostile. Gardeners are not selected for their language skills. Answering questions in English might just have frightened them. They might not even have been Austrian.

The book is also filled with numerous howlers that a quick look up at Wikipedia could have prevented easily. No, Marc Aurel did not hold back the Huns who arrived two hundred years later. No, Hitler was not Vienna's native son. No, Czechoslovakia did not exist then and no longer exists now. European history certainly was neither Mrs. O'Connor's forte nor her editor's. She certainly fits into the truthiness mold of her present employer, the Pravda on the Potomac. Why check a statement if it sounds true?

The narrative of the end of her book and its beginning are also not compatible: She starts with a classic, idealistic tale of justice, of handing the portrait back to its just owners. Her story ends with a greedy lawyer cashing in forty percent of the auction money extracted and four of the five paintings (which had been on public display in a public museum) disappearing in unknown private collections. In the light of this outcome, a rewrite of the first two thirds of the book would have been in order.

In an ethical decision analysis, one would have to take into account the declaration of the lady in the portrait to have it displayed in a public museum. One would further have to consider the suffering and expropriation caused to the Bloch-Bauer family. The lawyer's efforts also deserve adequate compensation. Finally, one should also acknowledge that today's Austrians are not guilty for their grandparents' actions. Thus, a compromise of displaying the portraits in a US museum should have been an acceptable solution for all, which would have also increased Klimt's visibility abroad.

Enter the lawyers. On the Austrian side, the lawyers held firm to the idea that Adele Bloch-Bauer had declared to have the painting displayed in the Belvedere museum. They failed to take into consideration that the Cold War had ended and the old generation of US politicians who were aware of their own complicity in not restoring the looted properties and not cleaning up institutions (exhibit A: former Austrian Nazi and UN secretary general Kurt Waldheim) were no longer in charge. On the American side, the lawyer representing the heirs was looking out more to his own than his clients' interests. Which went so far that he started suing his client (a Holocaust survivor) to extract his pound of flesh in the form of a full forty percent of the proceeds - which crashed a superior US museum solution at 150 million US dollars. Heir and collector Ronald Lauder added his political connections to extract and auction off the paintings to the highest bidders. At least, the portrait of Adele Bauer-Bloch is now on public display as the signature piece at Lauder's Neue Galerie in New York.

To accomplish this, the laws had to be stretched. To disregard Adele Bauer-Bloch's declaration, one had to resort to the anti-feminist solution that she never was the real owner of the painting. It was her husband who owned it all the time. A rather ugly political power play that at least compensated the heirs of Bloch-Bauer for some of their wartime losses, although the lion's share went to an extremely greedy lawyer. Hopefully, the Klimts now in the private collections will one day appear in public again. Authorities in Austria have in the mean time learned from the case. Recent restitutions have been performed much more amicably and with superior outcomes for all. As a recent report has indicated, there is still a lot of work to be done (especially concerning works from less valuable artists).

A true synthesis of the case of Adele Bauer-Bloch is still to be written. The first part about the creation of the portrait suffers from a lack of research and depth. The last part suffers from bias. The valuable part of this book is the middle one which drastically tells the story of the emergence of Nazism in Austria and the mistreatment and expropriation of the Bauer-Blochs and their relatives (some of which were Nazis themselves!). The trials of survival and escape of their war years are movingly told.
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LibraryThing member franoscar
This isn't really a book where you should worry about spoilers & I won't. This is about the painting & its history. It is interesting & tragic & makes the reader angry. The author lets some of the current figures speak for themselves & if she gives an accurate representation of their thoughts then
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we see the horror of their justifications. But I wish she had gotten the lawyer to speak about the final dispensation of the painting. Did his contract specify that they had to be sold for the highest possible amount & even so, why wasn't he satisfied with $50M+? And what was he, or any of them, going to do with the money. He is presented positively...and then...this crazy money grubbing decision.

Also, a glossary of names would have been helpful.
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LibraryThing member drjesons
Sad story about the ordeal of a wealthy Jewish family in Austria before and after the rise if Nazism. A family member Maria, who survived the Holocaust claimed back
from Austria: a portrait of one of its family member, long dead, Adele. Adele was painted by Austria's most famous painter Klimt and
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wished her portrait to be displayed in an Austrian gallery. Maria is very convincing in her claim that Adele would have not left the painting to Austrians if she would have known the betrayal, murder and theft committed by Austrians against the Jewish population. The importance of this book is that the truth be told. How could Maria rest in peace knowing that a family symbol would be left for her family's oppressors? I was disappointed with the ending and I wish there would have been more explanation about the monetary issues.
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LibraryThing member splinfo
This was a book for me. Dove tailed with my interests and expanded what I know about that period. Firmly grounded in letters, photos, written memoirs of the time; not "fleshed out" as some books of this type. I found the last quarter or so of the book about the trial and litigation surrounding the
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return of the painting to the Bloch-Bauer family especially interesting. Have never had a peak at a Christies Art Auction. Not surprisingly, the huge sums of money involved divided the family, a sad end to the legacy left to them.
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LibraryThing member sushitori
Fascinating, in-depth look at the life of Gustav Klimt, Vienna during the Hitler years, the Holocaust, and art theft and restitution. Although Klimt’s avant-garde art and love life was interesting, Austria’s collaboration with the Nazis was revelatory. In Vienna, in particular, wealthy Jewish
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families were suddenly shunned by old friends and their homes and belongings were seized. What‚Äôs worse is that the country denied their active role in the persecution of Jews. Even more shocking is that Austria is still reluctant to return all of the art that was stolen. Minor complaint: the author jumps back and forth in time talking about so many people that it gets confusing trying to figure out who did what to whom and when. Also, given the large cast of ‚Äúcharacters,‚ÄĚ a glossary of names and timeline would have helped.
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LibraryThing member wmnch2fam
Fascinating story of an art movement, Vienna, Austria and the theft of much of the cultural history of Europe. Wish the author had included family trees for the dozens of people and familial connections used to tell the story.
LibraryThing member briandrewz
This book tells the story of one of the most valuable paintings in the world: "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer". The book begins with the life stories of Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer. It's interesting to read of the friendship between the two, who were in all probability lovers. The book also
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talks about some of Klimt's other models. This is a drawback of the book, because I feel it should have solely focused on Adele. Another drawback is the report of Adele's extended family during WWII. Of couse, the book talks about Maria Altmann and her quest to get back her family's lost treasures. Her escape with her husband from occupied Austria is a riveting read. I found the book a little dry with all of its legal talk at the end.

Still, for lovers of art and art history, it is a good read.
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LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Subtitled: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

This is a story of a portrait of a beautiful Viennese Jewish salon hostess, the now-vanished turn-of-the-century Vienna cultural scene of which it became an emblem, the atrocities of the Nazi regime,
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and the efforts of Adele’s heirs to recover this and other paintings from an Austrian government that wished to hide the realities of war-time complicity.

My husband and I have reproductions of two Klimt paintings in our home ‚Äď The Kiss (perhaps his most famous work) and Water Serpents I, so I was immediately interested in the book. I really appreciated that O‚ÄôConnor took the reader back to the late 19th century and early 20th century to paint the landscape of the era ‚Äď the parties, the intrigue, the art scene, the romantic scandals, the loving families and not-so-loving marriages. I was completely drawn into this era and felt the loss of it when the narrative moved on to the war years and how the family members endured and/or escaped.

I thought it lost a little momentum when the time frame advanced to modern day and the early efforts of Maria Altmann (Adele’s niece) to recover the paintings which had been stolen from her family. For some of the chapters in the last section of the book O’Connor switched to a first-person narrative, told from Maria’s point of view, and that seemed to interrupt the flow. Still, I was captivated from beginning to end.
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LibraryThing member pennsylady
The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

by Anne-Marie O'Connor

The story of Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer (the Jewish Viennese society figure) and the history of
the painting

9 audio discs


I thought I would find an interesting turn of the century tale
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of an artist and his muse.

Instead, it was a compelling social history beginning at the turn of the century Vienna.
It was an exploration of the culture, introducing the reader to the anti-Semitism that permeated the era.
Exploration of the historical and political climate are essential to understanding the trail of Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I.

It began as a "glamorous era, peopled by Sigmund Freud, Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamar, and Billy Wilder.... An era that had ended with the arrival of Hitler."

We follow the massive theft of art in Europe by the German (Nazi) Government during World War II.
This particular portrait was stolen by the Nazis during World War II and renamed The Lady in Gold (to avoid any hint that its subject was Jewish)
They proudly exhibited it in Vienna's Baroque Belvedere Palace, consecrated in the 1930s as a Nazi institution.

The Lady In Gold was finally returned to Bloch-Bauer's heirs in the 21st century.

The years leading to the 21st century are intense, multifaceted and illuminating to the reader.
I finished the nonfiction feeling somewhat haunted and definitely pleased I had chosen to investigate this particular pocket of history..

....a vivid narrative...historically rich in detail...
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LibraryThing member bostonbibliophile
Fascinating story with all kinds of angles about the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer and how it ended up in America and in New York. Chapters cover the fall of Belle Epoque Vienna and World War 2, and the struggle of Bloch-Bauer's heirs to recover the painting from the Austrian government. The
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writing is so-so but the story itself is what kept me turning the pages. I've seen the painting at the Neue Gallerie but now I want to go back and see it again with what I know about its story under my belt.
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LibraryThing member weird_O
A book about a remarkable painter and the lives and persistence of his works. About Austria and, more particularly, about Vienna. About Nazis and about Anschluss. About government seizures, theft, appropriations, reparations, guilt, justice, even family conflicts. Denial. Anti-semitism. About
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shuffling around unpleasant facts, events, realities.

Gustav Klimt was an artist with an eye for beauty and the skill to capture a unique impression of it on canvas. He lived in Vienna, Austria from the late 1800s until his death in 1918. Some of his work was regarded as pornographic, yet (or, perhaps, thus) he attracted many lady admirers, among them wealthy art lovers. One of them, Adele Bloch-Bauer, was the subject of the pivotal Klimt painting in this tale. When completed in 1907, it was hung in the Bloch-Bauer mansion. Adele died in 1925, leaving an expression of her wish that her husband, Ferdinand, would donate the portrait and five other Klimt paintings, which he owned, to the Austrian State Gallery upon his death.

Anschluss derailed the Bloch-Bauers and every other Jewish family in Vienna; almost overnight, they had everything taken from them—cars, homes, country estates, jewelry and artworks, businesses, their houses of worship, their standing and respect in the community. SS men spirited away all the artworks. The railroad took over the house, converting it into office space. Adele's niece, Maria, had just returned from her honeymoon with Fritz Altmann, her husband of ten days, who was arrested. Fritz's elder brother Bernhard, Europe's largest knitwear manufacturer, was maneuvering to keep company stock out of German hands; dangling his assets before the Nazis, he negotiated Fritz's release and helped Fritz and Maria escape to Britain. Other family members confronted worse ordeals.

When the war ended, survivors tried to get their property back, but the Austrian government was loathe to part with it. Ultimately, Maria survived when few other family members did and she became principal heir to Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's estate. Represented by Randol Schoenberg, grandson of exiled Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, Maria pressed her case. Seemingly thwarted by Austrian stalling, Schoenberg took the case to U.S. courts, where the case was decided—by the U. S. Supreme Court—in the heirs' favor. You have to read it to believe it.
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LibraryThing member CasualFriday
The basis for Helen Mirren vehicle Woman in Gold, this book recounts the story of Gustav Klimt’s renowned portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, stolen by the Nazis who obscured Adele’s Jewish identity. Decades later, Adele’s niece Maria filed a lawsuit to get that and other paintings returned to the
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It is an important story that to me lost some of its energy in the telling. The story of pre-war Austria, with its intellectual and artistic energy and an influential, highly assimilated Jewish community was usually compelling, but it seemed as if the narrative jumped around just a bit to too much. I told a friend that it seemed ‚Äúfractured,‚ÄĚ and maybe that was an artistic choice, or maybe it‚Äôs just my mind that‚Äôs fractured.
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LibraryThing member Castlelass
Three-part story of the family that commissioned Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a painting by Gustav Klimt, completed in 1907. Part I gives the background of how and why the painting was created. It presents biographical material on both Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer, as well as relevant
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history of Viennese society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Part II focuses on Nazi looting of art and other property from Jewish families, including the Bloch-Bauers, during WWII. It follows the stories of various family members, and how they escaped (or did not). Part III tells about the legal fight by the heirs to recover their paintings from the Austrian government many decades after the war.

O’Connor writes in a journalistic style. She includes a depth of detail about art history, the secessionist movement, and the art scene in Vienna prior to WWII. She also contributes to the canon of the Holocaust narrative by recounting the horrific tragedies and heroic rescues with respect to the extended family of the Bloch-Bauers. The book is well-researched and includes a massive amount of information, some of which is only tangentially related to the main premise. It covers an extensive time period and there are many names to recall. It probably could benefit from the inclusion of a family tree to assist readers in remembering all the players.

Overall, I found it a compelling story, combining art history, the Holocaust, and legal disputes. It is a niche read, appealing those that enjoy both art and history.
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Physical description

368 p.; 5.2 inches


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