The Woman in Gold — The Real Story

Posted on April 2, 2015 at 3:28 pm

The Woman in Gold by Gustav Klimt  All rights reserved Neue Galerie
The Woman in Gold by Gustav Klimt All rights reserved Neue Galerie

This week’s “The Woman in Gold” stars Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, who fought to get the portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer returned to her family. The painting, considered an Austrian national treasure, was taken from Bloch-Bauer’s family by the Nazis when they invaded Austria. It was on display in a Viennese museum when Altmann, who escaped to the United States with her husband before WWII, brought a lawsuit that involved two countries and the United States Supreme Court before binding arbitration in Austria awarded the painting to Altmann. It’s now on display at the Neue Galerie in New York.

Some of the details were changed to make the movie less complicated, but most of it stays pretty close to the real story. Maria Altmann was represented by Randy Schoenberg, the grandson of the celebrated composer Arnold Schoenberg, who was a friend of Altmann’s parents and grandparents. As shown in the movie, Altmann’s parents and her aunt and uncle were wealthy and cultured and lived in a beautiful apartment that was visited by the height of Belle Epoque intelligentsia, including Sigmund Freud. Adele Bloch-Bauer was the young and beautiful wife of an much-older industrialist. She was a very vibrant person who loved art and artists. She is the only person Klimt painted twice.

Adele Bloch-Bauer died in 1925. She said she wanted the paintings to go to the Austrian Gallery in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna, but, as the movie shows, legally they belonged to her husband, who left them to his only relatives, Maria Altmann and her sister. Also as the movie shows, Ronald Lauder (the son of Estee Lauder) offered to pay for very expensive, experienced lawyers to take over from Schoenberg, but she stayed with the lawyer who was with her from the beginning. He didn’t let his wife go to the hospital to deliver their baby alone while he went to argue the case at the Supreme Court, but he did get a call from her when he was in Washington and about to appear before the Court, telling him she had gone into early labor. Fortunately, she did not have the baby until later. But that may be part of the reason that he really did get so nervous at the Supreme Court that he told the Chief Justice he did not understand his question. You can hear their exchange here.

To learn more about the story behind the painting, read The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer or watch the documentaries Adele’s Wish and The Rape of Europa.

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