1881 – 1925
“You must gain a feel for quality. When you are able to appreciate the great works of art—of fine art and poetic art—with understanding, you will also be able to evaluate people and judge whether they belong to the worthy or the worthless in quality.” (Czernin, 1999)
Upon becoming acquainted with Adele Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy society woman and hostess of a renowned Viennese Salon at the beginning of the twentieth century, one can easily understand why art and life seemed to blend together in her eyes. She has been eternalized by the famous Austrian artist Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) in two majestic portraits (1907 and 1912), and possibly also in an allegory of the Jewish heroine Judith (1901), displayed in the Austrian Gallery in Vienna. All three paintings are historical witnesses to the significance of Jewish patronage during the Golden Era of fin-de-siècle Vienna.
Adele Bloch-Bauer was born in Vienna on August 9, 1881, the youngest daughter of the seven children of the banker Moritz Bauer (1840–1905) and Jeannette Bauer née Honig (1844–1922). Her father was the general director of the influential Viennese Bank association and the president of the Orient railway company. When she was fifteen her sheltered world was shaken by the early death of her much loved older brother Karl. Presumably it was the trauma of his death that caused her to distance herself from religion. Denied the possibility to study and feeling unhappy at her parents’ house, Adele married relatively young. On December 19, 1899, she married the industrialist Ferdinand Bloch (1864–1945) who was seventeen years her senior. Her marriage followed the marriage of her sister Therese (1874–1961) to Ferdinand’s brother, Dr. Gustav Bloch (1862–1938). Adele and Ferdinand had no children. In 1917, both couples added the wives’ maiden name to the family name: Bloch-Bauer.
Adele Bloch-Bauer gave the impression of a refined mixture of romantic personae: sick and fragile on the one hand and a self-conscious and proud salon lady on the other. Indeed, Bloch-Bauer may have found her rôle models in romantic literature. She studied German, French and English classical literature by herself, at her own initiative. She was delicate, tending to be sick, and gave the impression of someone who suffered. Her narrow face appeared elegant and intellectual as well as arrogant and smug. She was often caught in the unladylike modern habit of smoking. Among the prominent guests in her salon were the composers Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) and Richard Strauss (1864–1949), Alma Mahler-Werfel (1879–1964), the authors Stefan Zweig (1881–1942) and Jakob Wassermann (1873–1934), artists from the circle of Gustav Klimt, actors from the Burgtheater, and after WWI, the Socialists Karl Renner (1870–1950) and Julius Tandler (1869–1936).
In the Summer of 1903, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer asked Klimt to paint his wife’s portrait, intending it as a present for her parents’ anniversary in October. The portrait was exhibited in public only early in 1907. Adele is sitting on a golden throne, the modern icon of a grande dame, the golden starry sky background complementing her rich golden robe. The fervent movement of erotic symbols such as triangles, eggs, eyes, in the flow of her gown hints at an intimate relationship between the artist and his model. Another indication of their relationship can be found in Klimt’s 1901 portrayal of “Judith” as a femme fatale, in which Adele is presumably recognized through her similarities in facial features and flashy neck-band to the subject in the later painting. A contemporary critic identified “Judith” as a modern Jewish lady. In a second portrait, dating from 1912, Adele is standing facing the viewer, wearing a fashionable dress. The colorful wallpaper behind her evokes a far-eastern exotic fantasy-world. The rumors about an affair between her and Klimt were never confirmed. In addition to the two portraits of Adele, the Bloch-Bauers also purchased four landscapes and numerous drawings by Klimt. They were both proud of their art collection, which included paintings by famous Austrian artists such as Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (1793–1865), Rudolf von Alt (1812–1905) and Emil Jakob Schindler (1842–1892), as well as a valuable collection of Viennese classical porcelain. In 1919, after the couple moved to their new grand palace opposite the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, Adele erected a shrine dedicated to Klimt in her chambers. His paintings decorated the walls, while his photo stood on a side table.
In 1918, after the fall of the Austrian-Hungary monarchy, Ferdinand and Adele requested Czech citizenship with the address of their castle “Schloß Jungfern” near Prague. But, their home base remained in Vienna, where Adele continued her role as a salon lady. Julius Tandler, a prominent guest, also became her physician. It was possibly due to his influence that she began to support Socialist causes. In her will, she bequeathed her money to many charities, among them The Society of Children’s Friends. She donated her library to the Viennese Public and Workers’ Library.
On January 24, 1925 Bloch-Bauer died suddenly of meningitis, in Vienna. After her death, the “Klimt Hall” was turned into a “memorial room” for her. In her will she asked her husband to donate Klimt’s paintings to the Austrian Gallery after his death. In 1938, following the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany, the paintings were aryanized. Ferdinand fled to Czechoslovakia and later continued to Zurich, where he died shortly after the end of the war. He is buried beside his wife in Vienna. His last request to recover the Klimt paintings and other artworks from their exquisite collection was not fulfilled in his lifetime. Maria Altmann, Adele’s California-based niece and the family heir, sued the Republic of Austria, demanding that the Klimt paintings be returned to her.
In May 2005 the Republic of Austria and Maria Altmann of Los Angeles agreed to end their litigation in U.S. District Court regarding five Gustav Klimt paintings and to submit the dispute to binding arbitration in Austria. In January 2006 the arbitration resulted in the award of the paintings to Maria Altmann. Soon afterwards, she had them displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In June 2006 the portrait entitled Adele Bloch-Bauer I was purchased for the Neve Galerie in Manhattan by Ronald Lauder for the record sum of 135 million dollars.
In April, 2005 New York District Judge Edward Korman awarded Altmann and several relatives USD 21.8 million from the Swiss Banks Fund. This vast sum was granted because a Swiss bank which Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer appointed as trustee of his sugar refinery in 1938 handed the business to an industrialist with ties to the Nazis in 1939.
Czernin, Hubertus. Die Fälschung. Der Fall Bloch-Bauer. Vienna: 1999; Natter, Tobias G. and Gerbert Frodl, ed. Klimt und die Frauen. Vienna: 2000; Grimberg, Salomon. “Adele. Private love and public betrayal in turn-of-the-century Vienna: a tale hidden in the paintings of Gustav Klimt.” Art & Antiques, Summer Issue (1986): 70–74, 90; email correspondence with Maria Altmann of March 26, April 2, June 22, 2002.