Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I: One of Klimt's Finest Works
Updated: Apr 28
In 1967, the Klimt Catalogue, revised and edited by Johannes Dobai with Fritz Novotny, showed the world 230 masterpieces of works by the twentieth-century famous artist- Gustav Klimt. And when it came out, art lovers saw an artist who was a painter of women, as one-third of the entire catalogue consists of portraits of ladies. And one must understand that these depictions were not just pictures or any form of erotic art but were icons of symbolic depth and richness of ornamentation. For instance, the paintings displaying the Golden style turned into hieratic idols. Comparatively, the sketches formed a free and fluid movement through the poses, and Gustav showed bodies with plasticity and smoothness. Every day in the desire for mastery and perfection, he used to capture on paper the poses of the models who camped out in his studio. And amidst all these efforts, Gustav assuredly, made his name as the best artist to portray women after we saw another Mona Lisa by him, The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Thus, we will study it, which not only illustrates an optimistic use of gold ornamentation but also demonstrates the eternal beauty of women.
1. Artist Statement.
“I have the gift of neither the spoken nor the written word, especially if I have to say something about myself or my work. Whoever wants to know something about me -as an artist, the only notable thing- ought to look carefully at my pictures and try and see in them what I am and what I want to do.”
2. Subject Matter.
The composition, which has a complex visceral impact, includes a woman as the subject, wearing a dress sewed in gold and precious metals. Here we see the lips of the lady are red and full, with eyes staring out from a light-filled gold leaf, seeming to create a transcendent plane of its own. The gentle realist face of the lady floats against the jewel box, and the expression vamp has not yet enriched our vocabularies. Like Mona Lisa, the artwork embodies femininity with a restless approach, devoid of matronly resignation.
Gustav Klimt, one of the most famous symbolist painters of the twentieth century, painted Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I. His primary focus remained on the female body, so his paintings, murals, and sketches crucially included portraits of women. However, his drawings were apparently a mark of sensual eroticism. Gustav was Vienna's most famous advocator of Art Nouveau and had a style identified in Germany called Youth Style.
The artwork dates back to 1907, which sets a crucial commission of Gustav.
The painting is a 138 x 138 cm composition, which took Gustav three years to complete. Adele's husband, Ferdinand Bloch- Bauer, a wealthy businessman who owned a sugar factory in Vienna, gave Gustave a commission for this painting. Before filling the colours to the artwork, Gustav made at least 1000 sketches to perfect the boundaries.
In the later section, I will let you know the entire chronology of the painting.
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I currently lies for exhibition in the Neue Galerie, New York. For the last fifteen years, the gallery had the right to exhibit this masterpiece to the viewers.
7. Technique and Medium.
Gustav used oil and gold for the canvas of Adele Bloch Bauer painting, elaborating complex ornamentation in the Jugendstil style. As Klimt was a member of the Vienna Secession, he wanted to break away from the traditional norms of painting. Hence, with the fusion of Philosophy and Medicine, he painted the composition, beautifully. Now, let me tell you what Jugendstil style means.
From 1890 to 1915, a widespread art movement was going on, signalling the renewal of architecture and decorative arts in Europe and the United States of America. And this took different names and styles in other countries. For instance, in Italy, it became stile floreale or liberty, Britain made its modern style, Spain- modernisme, Belgium- the coup de fouet and Germany- jugendstil.
It was an energetic reaction to nineteenth-century academic art and a rejection of past styles in favour of all things modern. It included naturalistic motifs derived from Japanese art, wavy and cold fluid lines, and transparent colours.
Oil and gold on canvas
138 x 138 cm
$250 Million (2012), Not on sale
Where is it housed?
Neue Galerie, New York
You already know a brief information about the painting. It is time that we finally move to the next section to learn in-depth.
Describing Gustav's Masterpiece in Detail.
About the Artist: Gustav Klimt.
Gustav Klimt, born in 1862, belonged to a poor-family where his father was a goldsmith and engraver, scarcely able to support his wife and seven children. He obtained his studies at the Kunstgewerbeschule (the Vienna School of Art) at the age of fourteen. However, his talent for being a painter was quickly recognised, and in 1879, he formed the Kunstlerkompagne (Artists company) with his brother Ernst and another student Franz Matsch.
In the nineteenth century later part, which was a period of great architectural activity in Vienna, Emperor Franz Joseph ordered the destruction of the fortifications around the medieval city centre. And the Ringstrasse became a district with magnificent buildings and parks. It led Klimt and his partners to receive an early commission to decorate the pageant for the silver wedding of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth. And the succeeding year, they were commissioned to produce a ceiling painting for thermal baths in Carlsbad.
Gustav was a painter of great skill and promise who remained thoroughly within the accepted contemporary norms in his choices of academic and allegorical scenes when working on the early works, such as Fable and Idylee. And later on, it changed into different styles, rejecting classicism, or should I say, the perfect form of art. Most importantly, Gustav's paintings communicate their sensual beauty and eroticism. The crucial subjects he treats were allegories, portraits, landscapes and erotic figures. The use of colours and patterns was majorly influenced by the art of Japan, ancient Egypt and Byzantine Ravenna with the flat- two-dimensional perspective of his paintings, with an unreal theme.
Learning the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer History.
Gustav was a well-known artist of Vienna who was also an aversion to the old scriptures, but he loved the religious symbolism and always considered art to be the source of almost devout truth. Consequently, he went to Ravenna in 1903 to study the sixth-century mosaics, the most important Byzantine art outside Constantinople, as an aesthetic pilgrimage. As he reached the place, he saw the gleaming mural and the golden tiles of Byzantium dazzling Europe. In the past, gold typified the primaeval of the sun, and in the Christian world, it represented the divine, so gold tiles were reserved for potentates and saints.
During this same time, he also saw the pictures of Empress Theodora, glowing against the golden tiles, shimmering like a halo above her head. If we trace back to the historian's remark, Theodora was always portrayed as a stage actress, a courtesan and an infamous woman. Whatever her origins be, one of the civil servants praised her as surpassing in the intelligence of men who lived. As for Theodara, she was the mistress of another man, but when she met Justinian, the emperor's son, he married her anyway, but she was unable to bear children. Despite that, she was a brilliant military strategist and an influential reformer who helped erode the status of women as chattels by changing the laws. Hence, the mosaics declared her unbelievable splendour. You might wonder why we are focusing so much on a mosaic, which is hundreds of years old. The reason is that Gustav began to plot the portrait of Adele as a painted mosaic, and this image was the inspiration behind her painting.
Coming to the Adele Bloch Bauer painting, one must understand that a portrait by Gustav Klimt was no small gift. Hence, this commission costed around 4000 crowns, which equals a quarter of the price of a royal country villa. As always, commissioned portraits of women reflected the wealth and stature of their husbands, but Gustav portrayed them as individuals without any hint of their husbands, father, or children playing a domestic roles. On this, the critic Bahr observed,
'It was sometimes not safe for society women and their good name, to have their portrait painted by Klimt.'
The Golden Art of Gustav Klimt.
There are gold-plated women in Klimt's work, and the supreme creatures are mounted on precious surfaces like jewels or icons of a new religion. In 1901, Gustav marked the beginning of the golden style, Judith I, celebrates the origin of this movement, and while he painted the portrait of Adele, it was already at its peak. Some of the contemporaries suggested that as of the artist, the son of a goldsmith, the gold was a shining memory of his early days and the timeless material of glorious seduction.
I already told you that the gold work was majorly from the Byzantine mosaics of Empress Theodora. But Gustav already discovered the potential of the colour gold as a decorative function in the Modern Amoretti (1868) by Hans Makart. Hence, just after this illustrated reference, Gustav began to use gold at first as frame panels, as we can see in Love and Josef Lewinsky as Carlos in Clavigo, then as an ornamental background element in the Allegory of Music 1895.
One must understand that the golden style of Gustav not only included massive use of pure gold leaf and gilded paper but formed a rigid structural role. After the 1903 visit, Gustav was more inclined to the Byzantine mosaics and the cover of reality through gold use. Gold, however, is strenuous to use as its two qualities of brightness and opacity modulate the relationship between flat and plastic surfaces.
Hence, to learn this mosaic technique in depth, the artist visited Ravenna twice in 1903, which gave him the potential to experiment with the precious metal.
Who was Adele Bloch-Bauer?
Born in Vienna on August 9, 1881, Adele Bloch-Bauer was the youngest daughter of the seven children of banker Moritz Bauer and Jeannette Bauer nee Honig. Adele's father belonged to an influential group as he was the director general of the Viennese Bank association and the president of the Orient Railway company. When Adele was sixteen, she faced the death of her beloved brother, which caused her put in trauma, distancing herself from religion. Due to the lack of study opportunities and feeling unhappy at home, she married the sugar industrialist Ferdinand Bloch (1864–1945), seventeen years older than her. During the summer of 1903, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer commissioned Klimt to paint his wife's portrait, intending to give it to her parents on their anniversary. Adele's portrait was only completed in 1907, making it the modern icon of a grande dame. Now that you understand the historical reference of the artist's style, let me take you to the subject matter analysis of the painting.
Subject Matter Analysis of the Painting.
The subject of the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is Adele. The first thing you notice about her is her rosy lips, with her eyes staring out and her face floating above the mosaic. The composition seems alive but with a meaning behind it.
Perhaps, Gustav never tried to show his subject as it looks. And his mischievous nature made him dress Adele with a heavily bejewelled choker, which seems to appear like in the Judith painting. The hand of the lady was bent, which hides a crooked finger, giving a lesson of a kind of mortal imperfection with so much grandeur. Further, she is in a luminous field of pure gold leaf, which created her look like a religious icon, and most historians compare it with the mosaic portrait of Empress Theodora in Ravenna.
Ludwig Hevesi described it as,
"a rapturous feeling of the most majestic colourfulness. Colourful, sensual pleasure, a dream of bejewelled lust."
Further, he added, it was,
"a bodiless, pure feast for the eyes, conjuring up, once again, the soul, which lives in the physical art of former times of magnificence."
The gold portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I, the symbol of the enlightened turn-of-the-century Viennese woman, has a face with modern and sophisticated expressions.
In terms of symbolism, Adele seems oppressed by a weighty legacy, the sad reality of life, and the decline of Spain. Fabric merges with flesh as the dress becomes one with the body. Arms and shoulders reflect fantasy comprehended in ornamentation, a gown's fall echoes a crease in the skin. There is a possibility that the long gown itself was painted onto the naked body and could disappear in a moment, ceding to the triumphant nudity. The Egyptian eyes on the long dress set in triangles or the Mycenaen spiral scrolls so favoured by the artist escape attention at first glance.
Though Adele may have something of the priestess in her, the decor and her clothing do not share this quality.
Ludwig Hevesi, one art critic, says,
"Klimt's ornamentation is the figurative expression of primal matter, which is always, without end, in a state of flux, turning and twisting in spirals, entangling itself, a whirlpool that takes on every shape, zebra stripes flashing like lightening, tongues of flame darting forwards, vine tendrils, smoothly linked chains, flowing veils, tender nets."
Coming on the ornamentation part, one can see the fashion sense of subjects through Klimt's eyes. It may be because of his friendship with Emilie Floge, who ran a fashion house in Vienna.
To conclude this section, I am giving you a final fact.
In this portrait, Eros and the life cycle are still themes without any of their unpleasant aspects. Even though women are still symbols of sex, they are much more innocent and straightforwardly charming than vamps and femme fatales. In this picture, the woman seems to be waiting to be played with, rather like a large doll waiting to be withdrawn out of their boxes.
Gustav’s Use of Symbolism in Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I.
As we can see in Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt, there are numerous shapes having a meaning of themselves. We will learn them one by one. The choice of abstracted egg is due to the fact that Adele miscarried two babies and probably, it is the symbol of fertility. One must understand that when the painting was just beginning with the preparatory sketches, it occurred that Klimt made these to compensate for the stillbirth and death of her son in 1904. Gustav tried to put Adele's characteristics in the paintings through her hand gestures and expressions. At one point, when Ferdinand saw the artwork, he felt that it portrayed the exa