Immortalized As 'The Woman In Gold,' How A Young Jew Became A Secular Icon Gustav Klimt's 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was seized by the Nazis. A film now tells the story of Adele's niece, who fought to recover her family's paintings more than a half century later.
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Immortalized As 'The Woman In Gold,' How A Young Jew Became A Secular Icon

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Immortalized As 'The Woman In Gold,' How A Young Jew Became A Secular Icon

Immortalized As 'The Woman In Gold,' How A Young Jew Became A Secular Icon

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A Manhattan art museum got a dose of Hollywood glamour last week when Helen Mirren accepted an award there for her performance in the movie "Woman In Gold." The painting known as "Woman In Gold" by Gustav Klimt is hanging in that very place, the Neue Galerie. And the movie follows the painting, which was seized by the Nazis and restored to the Jewish family that owned it eventually. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg went there to see it.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: What do you have for dessert?

ROBIN GRAU: There's the sachertorte, which is a classic dark chocolate Viennese chocolate cake.

STAMBERG: The Neue Galerie at 86th and Fifth specializes in German and Austrian art. The cafe feels Viennese. So do the sweets waiter Robin Grau recites.

GRAU: We have the Klimt torte, which is a chocolate and hazelnut cake.

STAMBERG: It's not fattening?

GRAU: If you look at it, no (laughter).

STAMBERG: The Klimt torte is decorated with a tiny, edible, gold leaf, a nod to the museum's most famous painting, Gustav Klimt's 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the "Woman In Gold." She and other Klimt women are now on view at the Neue. One of his very last portraits, "The Dancer," was done in 1917.

RENEE PRICE: Her name was Ria Munk.

STAMBERG: She was just 24 when she committed suicide.

PRICE: The reason for her suicide was an unhappy love affair. She wanted to marry an impoverished poet.

STAMBERG: The poet got cold feet. Museum director Renee Price says he broke up with Ria in a letter.

PRICE: And so then she took a revolver and shot herself in the chest. And her parents were so devastated that they wanted Klimt to make a posthumous portrait of her.

STAMBERG: Lovely young Ria stands surrounded by colorful, densely painted flowers. Her robe, open at the breasts, is patterned green and red.

JANIS STAGGS: Very decorative, very joyful.

STAMBERG: Curator Janis Staggs says "The Dancer" was the first Klimt to be shown in this country.

STAGGS: So that's how Americans first began to think of Klimt as this person who painted these luscious, beautiful portraits of women, you know, kind of idealizing them.

STAMBERG: Other Klimt women here - the Neue has the most Klimts in the U.S. - have flat-brimmed hats and big, black hats with feathers and big hair. But the best-known woman has been called the "Mona Lisa" of Austria - Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

STAGGS: It's also been called the lady in gold or woman in gold. In fact, when the Nazis seized the painting and first displayed it in the early 1940s in the first major retrospective of Klimt's work during World War II, they called it dame in gold.

STAMBERG: Lady in gold. In fact, the portrait is merely entitled "Adele Bloch-Bauer." The Nazis removed her name.

STAGGS: They took away her identity.

STAMBERG: Without a Jewish name, the work became appropriate to show in Hitler's Third Reich.

STAGGS: So it is a betrayal on the grandest scale.

STAMBERG: A violation enacted by officials who knew exactly who she was. Her family was prominent. Adele Bauer was a banker's daughter, the wife of Ferdinand Bloch. In sweets-loving Vienna, he made his fortune in sugar.

STAGGS: It was an arranged marriage. She was married when she was only 18 years old to a man almost twice her age.

STAMBERG: Her life in the 1890s was one of leisure. There were servants, fittings, art shows, the opera. No universities for Viennese women then.

STAGGS: So if you were her generation or earlier, you coped by hosting a salon - writers, politicians, intellectuals, musicians, artists such as Klimt.

STAMBERG: Adele's loving husband commissioned their illustrious friend Gustav Klimt to paint two portraits of her. "Adele II" is at the Museum of Modern Art right now.

STAGGS: He was, by the early 20th century, the most beloved and widely known Austrian artist of his day.

STAMBERG: Most of his clients were wealthy Jews. Curator Janis Staggs says owning a Klimt was a mark of prestige.

STAGGS: I think, to these families, it was a way of saying that they had made it.

STAMBERG: Klimt, in his long artist's smock with nothing underneath, according to reliable sources - the guy had some 14 illegitimate children, by the way. Klimt spent four years painting his tall, slim subject. He puts Adele in a throne-like chair. Her long neck is sheathed in a gem-encrusted choker. Her voluminous gown is covered in geometric patterns inspired by gold-embedded mosaics he'd seen on a trip to Ravenna, Italy. The dress is three-dimensional in some places - the paint built up and off the canvas.

STAGGS: Painted not only with oil but also layered in gold and silver leaf.

STAMBERG: Adele has a cloud of black hair piled on top of her head, thick, lush eyebrows...

STAGGS: And her lips have this rosy tint. They're full, slightly parted.

STAMBERG: Unusual in portraits then, a sign of sensuality. Her hands are clasped in front of her chest in a strange, awkward position.

STAGGS: She had a disfigured little finger. She was very self-conscious about this.

STAMBERG: Adele's eyes, heavy-lidded and dark in her pale face, hint of life in a gilded cage. There's sadness there, melancholy. For all her wealth and privilege, Adele Bloch-Bauer had much to bear.

STAGGS: She suffered very poor health her whole life, was very frail, suffered terrible migraines, was a chain smoker.

STAMBERG: And experienced great tragedies - two miscarriages and a son who died just a few days after he was born. Twenty-two years old when Klimt began this portrait. Those losses show in her eyes.

STAGGS: She can foresee for herself what the rest of her life will hold. The opportunity she had dreamed of as a young girl were going to be denied.

STAMBERG: Adele died of meningitis in 1925. She was 43 years old. The prominent artist who painted her portrait, which was shown in Germany, Vienna and Switzerland in her lifetime, had made her into a secular icon. Curator Staggs theorizes that was a gift to both of them.

STAGGS: The unhappiness that she felt in real life - he could offer her something in this eternity that he created by sort of becoming this icon of Vienna in the early 20th century - that it helped sort of realize both his ambitions artistically but also hers as a woman and what she wanted to be but couldn't.

STAMBERG: The exhibition "Gustav Klimt And Adele Bloch-Bauer: Woman In Gold" is at New York's Neue Galerie until September 7. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: See the portraits of Adele I and II and other Klimts at

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