Art Stories: Maria Altmann and the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

 In MOA Features

Guest Post by Megan Mayfield, MOA Marketing Intern

The Bloch-Bauer family, a wealthy Jewish family living in Vienna, held close ties to the artists in the city, including Gustav Klimt. Because of their friendship, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer commissioned Klimt paint two portraits of his wife, Adele Bloch-Bauer. After Adele’s premature death, her portraits hung proudly in the Bloch-Bauer home where Maria Altmann saw them weekly and was able to remember her aunt.

The Nazi occupation of Austria in 1938 changed all of this. The newly-married Maria and her husband Fritz Altmann were forced to flee their home as the Nazis pilfered their family heirlooms, including the portraits of Adele. Maria and Fritz made new lives for themselves in California, but Maria always remembered the stolen portraits of her aunt Adele.

gustav_klimt, portrait of adele bloch-bauer i

Gustav Klimt, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” 1907, oil, silver and gold on canvas, 54 x 54 inches. Neue Gallery, New York.

The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer 1 by Gustav Klimt eventually found its way to Vienna’s Austrian Gallery at Belvedere Palace where it became a symbol of Vienna’s Golden Age and a national treasure. For the majority of Maria’s new life, she believed the painting to be the rightful property of the Austrian government. However, the later discovery of Adele’s will revealed that the portrait rightfully belonged to Maria as a descendant, not the Austrian government.

At 82 years old, Maria Altmann began the journey to reclaim what was stolen from her 60 years prior. With the help of lawyer Randol Schoenberg (the grandson of Arnold Schoenberg, an Austrian composer also victimized by the Nazis), Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer 1 was returned to Maria Altmann after a seven-year court battle. The portrait that had hung in the Belvedere Gallery for 68 years was finally back where it belonged. The painting eventually was sold to Ronald Lauder for his Neue Gallery in New York for $135 million, where it still hangs.

In the midst of the long court battle with no end in sight, Maria is quoted as saying, “They will delay, delay, delay, hoping I will die. But I will do them the pleasure of staying alive.”


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