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The woman behind the portrait

     Maria Altmann was born in Vienna in 1916, the youngest of five children in a wealthy family. The Blochs were Jewish but assimilated. They celebrated Christmas and Easter and went to synagogue only once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. At synagogue, Maria’s father, Gustav Bloch, looking elegant with his silver hair and top hat, would pray beside the Rothschild brothers.

     Gustav was a lawyer but spent much of his time visiting art galleries and antique shops. Each week, he would play chamber music with friends on a Stradivarius cello that the Rothschilds had loaned him for his lifetime.

     Maria’s uncle, Ferdinand Bloch, could not have been more different from his brother. “My father was so gentle, so forgiving,” Maria says, “and my uncle, was like that she says, demonstrating forcefulness by banging her fist on the table. Commanding and hardworking, Ferdinand owned a sugar company, which he managed from the top floor of his palatial mansion.


The couple hosted at a salon in their home. Composer Gustav Mahler, politician Karl Renner and anatomist Julius Tandler were regulars. So was the
painter Gustav
Klimt
,
a well-known but controversial artist.

     The Bloch brothers had married a pair of sisters, Therese and Adele Bauer. Therese, Maria’s mother, was “a tough little thing,” Maria says. (Later, when a Gestapo officer would come knocking on Therese’s door, she would order him to remove his hat when talking to a lady, and he would.)

     Maria’s aunt, Adele, was a pale, frail woman who smoked constantly out of a long, gold cigarette holder. Anxious to leave her parent’s home around age 18, Adele had married Ferdinand, nearly 20 years her elder. The marriage was one of great respect but not love, Maria says. Adele appreciated the intellectually stimulating life her husband offered her. Interested in learning and politics, she “would have loved to be a woman of today,” Maria says.

     Adele and Ferdinand tried to have children, but they had two stillborns and a son who died a few days after birth. So, without any children to look after, she and Ferdinand, who merged their last names to form “Bloch-Bauer,” immersed themselves in Vienna’s cultural life. They threw dinner parties where the men wore white ties and tails. They filled their home with fine art, antique furniture and tapestries. They accumulated a 400-piece porcelain collection, which they showcased in glass cabinets.

     The couple also hosted at a salon in their home. The composer Gustav Mahler, the politician Karl Renner and the anatomist Julius Tandler were regulars. So was the painter Gustav Klimt, a well-known but controversial artist. The son of a failed gold-engraver, Klimt had studied applied, rather than fine, arts. He began his career painting murals for theaters, in a naturalistic style. But gradually, he turned his back on tradition. In 1897, Klimt led a group of artists to form the Austrian Secession, a break with the art establishment. When the Ministry of Culture asked Klimt to design three ceiling paintings for the University of Vienna, the sensual, symbolic, provocative pieces he painted drew harsh criticism. In the face of public censure, Klimt retreated to the private sphere, where he painted portraits of women, mostly upper-class Jews.

     When Ferdinand married Adele, he commissioned Klimt to paint a portrait of her, as a present for Adele’s parents. But Klimt took several years to finish the work, finally completing “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” in 1907, and Ferdinand kept the magnificent gold portrait for himself. In 1912, Klimt painted another portrait of Adele, “Adele Bloch-Bauer II,” a brightly-colored piece in which Adele wears a broad-brimmed, black hat. Klimt, who was not Jewish, and Adele were good friends, perhaps even – as rumor had it – lovers.

     Then, one night in 1925, Adele’s German shepherd came running and barking into Ferdinand’s bedroom. When Ferdinand went to see what the fuss was about, he found Adele, 43, dead from meningitis.

     Ferdinand turned Adele’s bedroom into a shrine, filling it with fresh flowers, the two Klimt portraits and several Klimt landscapes. The room was supposed to stay that way.

 

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