Off bustling 5th Avenue, facing Central Park, is one of New York City’s most glittering galleries. The works inside the Upper East Side’s Neue Galerie focus on fin de siècle (end of the 19th century) Austria and Germany, with fantastic pieces of fine furniture and art. Many of the works come from Vienna and one of its most famous painters in particular: Gustav Klimt.
One Klimt portrait on permanent display here truly stands out in its own right: Stolen from a Jewish family in the run-up to World War II, the magnificent artwork was located, brought back to America and eventually sold to the Neue Galerie, but only after an international court battle which included a lawsuit filed against the government of Austria and a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Here’s what you need to know about this incredible work of art, and why you’ll want to make time to see it on your next visit to the Big Apple!
Meet The Woman In Gold
Standing watch over a room on the Neue Galerie’s second floor is the imposing and beautiful Adele Bloch-Bauer. You couldn’t miss her 1907 portrait — even if you tried. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I dominates the space with the sitter’s dreamy stare and long glittering golden gown. A closer look reveals incredible detail in her cape and dress, with all sorts of symbols painted in, including eyes, triangles, and swirls.
Klimt made a career out of painting Vienna’s social elite, and Adele was certainly in that setting. The daughter of a banking and shipping executive, she led a privileged, posh lifestyle as a young woman. She married sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch when she was just 19. The couple lived lavishly in Vienna’s most fashionable neighborhoods, holding regular salons. The Bloch-Bauers also became well-known art patrons, and Gustav Klimt was one of their favorite artists.
Klimt painted Adele twice in full-length portraits, and the one at the Neue is the first and perhaps more famous of the two. He used silver and gold leaf combined with oil paint to create the sumptuous, surreal look of Adele’s dress and cape. You’ll notice she’s got her hands clasped — this is likely because one of her fingers was deformed and she sought to hide it during her sittings with Klimt.
Adele’s face is the most stunning facet of the iconic work. Is she wistful and yearning? Or instead, does she project confidence and grandeur? That’s the mystery of Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, and one that’s very much left up to the eye of the beholder.
In 1925, Adele died of meningitis at the young age of 43. Ferdinand was devastated, and years later, he had to leave everything behind to escape the Nazis when they invaded Vienna. They stole nearly all of the family’s treasures: their homes, Adele’s jewelry, and of course, the art, including Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Austrians claimed Adele’s will stated her desire to gift her famous portrait to the country, and Germans opted to have the artwork hung in Vienna’s national art museum, the Galerie Belvedere. However, records showed Ferdinand amended the document when he was forced to flee Austria, opting instead to leave whatever could later be found or recovered to their heirs.
Decades later, an Austrian journalist began delving into the story of stolen artworks and determined the Bloch-Bauers’ art, including Adele’s golden portrait, was indeed confiscated and not gifted. Adele’s niece, Maria Altmann, who had also fled Austria and eventually settled in Los Angeles, had always been told her aunt had given the works away. When she learned of the legal complications, and that her uncle had indeed changed Adele’s will, she geared up for a fight. She knew her aunt never would have consented to leave her art to the Austrians had she known about the horrific events that were to transpire leading up to and during World War II.
The Court Fight
Maria — then in her 80s — hired a young attorney whose family had been friends with hers back in Austria, and became determined to have the truth about the portrait’s provenance come out. The two worked on the case for 8 years, tracking documents, scouring records, and working the case along through the courts, before eventually arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court for the right to sue the Austrian government.
Against the odds, they won the case.
After that landmark ruling, the government of Austria decided to cut its losses. Rather than take the case any further, which likely would have resulted in a long trial and embarrassing, damaging appeals, Austria’s government ended its fight. All of the Bloch-Bauers’ Klimt artworks — five in total, including the golden portrait of Adele — were eventually returned to Maria.
Maria decided she wanted to sell the works of art, which were brought to Los Angeles. And for billionaire Ronald Lauder, from the cosmetic giant Estee Lauder, the timing could not have been more perfect.
He was looking to boost the profile and buzz about the new museum he founded on the city’s Upper East Side: the Neue Galerie. Curated with works from Germany and Austria, Adele would certainly be right at home in the small museum. Bringing her to the Neue would be an enormous coup and make lasting waves in the art world.
Among Maria’s terms of the sale: Adele’s portrait would never be part of a private collection, would need to be put on permanent public display, and the complicated history of the art must be acknowledged. Lauder agreed and eventually paid a reported $135 million for the portait, bringing it to the Neue in late 2006. The other works were sold to private collectors.
The story behind Adele’s portrait — and the long battle to return it to its rightful owners — sounds straight out of a Hollywood movie script. And indeed, in 2015, Helen Mirren starred as Maria Altmann in The Woman in Gold, which detailed her determination and drive to reclaim her family’s legacy and its art. The real Maria passed away in 2011, but not before having seen the portrait of her aunt become the centerpiece and crown jewel of the Neue Galerie.
As with all New York City museums, theaters, and restaurants, you must have proof of your COVID-19 vaccine to enter the Neue Galerie. It’s also a smart move to purchase your tickets online and in advance, as special exhibits are subject to timed entry. Also note that no one under the age of 12 is allowed in, so this isn’t a spot for younger grandkids.
Plan to take your time with Adele. Her portrait is imposing, gorgeous, and mesmerizing. If need be, wait your turn to sit on the viewing couch opposite the work to really take it all in. Some have compared this piece to the Mona Lisa, and it’s not difficult to see why. And when you consider everything it took to bring her to this place, this museum, the painting becomes all the more remarkable.
While at the Neue, take time to appreciate the rest of the Klimt portraits on display. While not quite as magnificent as Adele, they are still beautiful representations of Klimt’s dreamy, shimmering style and technique, and they are certainly representative of the incredible art scene in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century.
One last tip: Don’t leave the Neue without checking out the museum’s gift shop — filled with fun finds — and its wonderful Café Sabarsky, which serves up cocktails, light bites, and decadent Austrian desserts.
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