Beyond the muse

In March 2006, the legal battle between Austria and the United States for the possession of one of Gustav Klimt’s most emblematic works, The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I also known as The Woman in Gold, came to an end. It became the most expensive painting in history, with a total price of $135 million. Maria Atlmann, the heiress of the painting brought to an end one of the most controversial cases in the history of art, giving the dame a final rest in the Neue Galerie in New York, where she still resides.

The story is already known to many, books have been written, films have been filmed and the facts have been collected in many studies. Maria Altmann confronted a whole country to recover what was hers and Austria lost one of its most characteristic and important assets, leaving Belvedere Palace a little more empty. The Mona Lisa of Austria was sold and turned into the main work of the Neue Galerie, because of the principles, the values, the commitment that Altmann acquired after the Second World War with the country that welcomed her when the Nazism arrived to her life.

But who was Adele Bloch-Bauer? Who is really the Woman in Gold?  She allows us to look at her, immortalized on the canvas, and we are mere spectators of Klimt’s and Vienna’s golden age. Born in the cradle of a bourgeois family on 9 December 1881, she had followed the traditional rules in accordance with her lifestyle. Art had been for her a focus of attraction and she longed to become an intellectual woman, which is why in 1900 she married Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, thirteen years older than her. Under the promise of freedom, the Bloch-Bauers united two of the most influential families in Vienna and harvested one of the most important artistic and intellectual legacies, a legacy that was taken from them when Germany conquered Austria and the hatred of Nazism spread.

Adele Bloch-Bauer’s story is undoubtedly linked to Gustav Klimt’s. Judith I is the starting point for Adele as muse, it is the first time she posed for the artist. At the time, the painting generated controversy; because of the model’s uncovered breasts and the author’s personal interpretation of the myth. Although it was never confirmed by either of them who the woman portrayed was, the evidence was clear, not only to Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, but also to the citizens of Vienna who questioned Adele’s honour. Ferdinand wanted to clear both his wife’s name and his marriage’s name and commissioned the portrait we know today as The Woman in Gold.

Adele was the muse, not only of paintings, but also of ideas that impressed Klimt and the entire Viennese circle. The deep love she felt for her city made her part of the process of cultural, social and artistic growth of the city. She wanted to be remembered for changing, improving and being an active part of the community. On more than one occasion she said that “the most important thing in life was to be Viennese”. The feeling for Vienna was so strong for her that she included it directly in her will, leaving her artistic legacy in the hands of the city. Something that, years later, Ferdinand would change for his nephews. 

Adele brought together in her house personalities such as the writer Stefan Zwein, the composer Gustav Mahler or the philosopher Sigmund Freud. Gatherings were frequent and sometimes took place in Vienna’s Central Café, a meeting place for the intellectuals of the time. The Bloch-Bauers became patrons of avant-garde art, Ferdinand gave in to Adele and her interests, turning her heritage into an artistic relic. So much was her taste and knowledge that it is said that she was the driving force behind one of the paintings most loved by the public around the world, The Kiss, which was presented in 1907 as was her portrait, marking the beginning of the artist’s golden age. It is said that Bloch-Bauer reflected on the work during one of his visits where he modeled for his own portrait, “paint a kiss capable of saving the world” and Klimt simply painted it. There are many who interpret the portrait as a tribute to Adele and there are many who speak of her capacity to make herself heard in a world reserved for men. 

Adele Bloch-Bauer was a muse, and at the same time, she was much more than that. An intellectual and patron of the arts who made a difference and who demonstrated and vindicated the role of women, with her actions and her gatherings she aimed for an equal world in which a woman did not have to marry in order to stop depending on her parents and therefore depend on her husband. She claimed the right to express herself freely and to choose her own path, regardless of gender.

The Viennese Judith breaks with all the established, being the advocate of art patronage, changing society from her own position and trying to discourage the Holofernes who want to leave her as a muse, without seeing all that lies beyond.

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© Nuria López