The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

by: Anne-Marie O'Connor (0)

National Bestseller

The true story that inspired the movie Woman in Gold starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds.

Contributor to the Washington Post Anne-Marie O’Connor brilliantly regales us with the galvanizing story of Gustav Klimt’s 1907 masterpiece—the breathtaking portrait of a Viennese Jewish socialite, Adele Bloch-Bauer. The celebrated painting, stolen by Nazis during World War II, subsequently became the subject of a decade-long dispute between her heirs and the Austrian government.

When the U.S. Supreme Court became involved in the case, its decision had profound ramifications in the art world. Expertly researched, masterfully told, The Lady in Gold is at once a stunning depiction of fin-de siècle Vienna, a riveting tale of Nazi war crimes, and a fascinating glimpse into the high-stakes workings of the contemporary art world.

One of the Best Books of the Year: The Huffington PostThe Christian Science Monitor.   Winner of the Marfield National Award for Arts Writing. Winner of a California Book Award. 

The Reviews

This is a fascinating book. It is not an easy read but is worth your time to persevere. The book is a promise to tell the story of Gustav Klimt and his best known painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who is a Vienna Jewish socialite. Fast forward 80 plus years and Klimt's painting,"The Lady in Gold" is auctioned at Christie's for the record price of 78.5 million dollars. In the beginning of this book we read about Klimt and Adele, their relationship and the history of the painting. However, the book is primarialy about the city of Vienna, the great wealth and social life of the Jewish intelligentsia. Unfortunately, Hitler had a special interest in the city. Austria was his birthplace, and art was his obsession. At the time of the German occupation Vienna had the largest Jewish population of western Europe. The German soldiers and SS stripped the Jewish people of their wealth, possessions and many of their lives. Much of the book is about the German confication of the art treasures of Austria and finally the effort of the Jews to reclaim their possessions. Although the Bloch-Bauer family was the main group profiled, there were many pre and post war people in the story. There were too many extended family and friends to keep straight. O'Connor obviously did an excellent research job but the story was lacking in organization.

From the cosmopolitan salons of fin-de-siècle Vienna to the interwar years when Vienna was a shadow of its former glory to the terrible years of the Anschluss and finally to the courtrooms of the postwar period, this book is an extraordinary masterpiece of history. This is the story of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the lady in gold of the famous Klimt painting.The story begins close to the present when finally the Klimt painting was handed over by Austria to the family of Adele in 2006. But then backwards in time we go to the late 19th century. To a cosmopolitan Imperial city - Vienna. A glorious Vienna where women of the "second society" (read: liberated, secular, wealthy Jews and non-aristocrats) were able to hold salons for the artists and authors who would never have been exposed to the public or gained so much fame otherwise. But it was also frequented by the famous too. Mark Twain stopped by on his travels through Europe and received a warm welcome from the people open to modernity but was also vilified by the establishment. The first female doctor in Vienna visited. The composers Mahler and Strauss frequented the salons. And so did artists, including Klimt. And while we get a lot on the world of this society of the liberated Jews, we also learn a lot about Klimt.After recreating this world of artistic and intellectual ferment, however, the book turns dark. The Fall of the Habsburg Empire was a catastrophe for Imperial Vienna. No longer was Vienna the center of a multicultural polyglot empire. Now it was only the capital of the rump state of Austria. And vastly reduced in population and glory. The book is part a biography of Klimt. Part a biography of Adele Bloch-Bauer (and her many relations). But it is also a biography of Vienna. And while the interwar years were not great for Vienna, the deepest darkness was still to come during the Anschluss. Now the society of the salons would be broken. And lost forever. The Nazis would attempt to erase the cultural brilliance from history. The names would attempt to be forgotten. The Germanification of Austria would leave no room for Jews or the part they played in making Vienna a capital of modernity.The Nazi years when the family scattered through Europe, the postwar period when Vienna was occupied by the four main Allies, the end of deNazification in '48 because Vienna was important to the West and was not going to be lost to the Communist Soviets are all discussed and the families that are the core of the book weather the tempests of time. Though not all make it. Some are lost to firing squads. Some to suicide. Some to Concentration Camps. Some made it through the Fascist years but ended up killed by Tito's forces in Yugoslavia (part of the family had huge assets there). And then the story continues in the new world where some of Adele's descendants survived.But it also continues in a disgusting version of Austria. And the last part of the book discusses the collective amnesia. And how the Austrians now would not let any art leave the country because art was part of the national cultural patrimony. But some lesser works could leave if the owners whose works were stolen would agree to more valuable works staying. This post-war Austria eventually succumbs to something better and so the story ends in the period when the stolen artworks begin to be reclaimed by the original owners's families.The book is a masterpiece of story telling. The author recreates the world and makes you identify with these historical personages. For anyone who wants to know more about Austrian history, this is a great book to read. For anyone who loves history, this is a great book to read.

What started out as a lively recount of the Bloch-Bauers' lives and the Vienna they inhabited has become a lumbering recitation with stilted writing and too-often repeated stories and descriptions. I have screeched to a halt after 100 pages, with the plodding and repetitive descriptions of the Nazi impact on individual lives.While essential to understand, the telling of these tales is without color or intrigue. We have, for example, twenty pages of letters between Maria and Fritz that literally contain laundry lists, and I love yous. Two pages would have been plenty for any intelligent reader to get the gist of this phase of their lives.I'll skip forward to the theft of the painting and its legal journey, and hope for more enticing writing, story telling, and editing. But I expected far more from this author and her editors.

This is not your average read. The first 100 pages or more read like an art history book mixed with Western Civilization history. Don't let that scare you from reading this book. It may be a struggle to read all that detail at first but it becomes easier to read. Tells the story of the families involved in a small fraction of the art and other family wealth stolen from Austrian Jews by the Nazis. I had no idea that the Austrian government was so complicit with the theft from the Jews and how they resisted returning property to the rightful owners. In the end, a courageous attorney takes on the Austrian government and wins in spite of the daunting odds against him and returns the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer to her heirs and starts a movement to return more art to the families it was stolen from so long ago.

In what should have been a little historical anecdote the author brings up the fact that Samuel Clemens and his family lived in Vienna for a time and came into contact with someone who came in contact with someone who knew Klimpt. Then this fact is mentioned TWENTY-SEVEN more times. Very little of this book has to do with the artist or the painting or the subject but rather anyone who came into contact with it and their relatives and their relatives. I'm all for historical background but not when it's 98% of the book.

This book is absolutely enthralling. I love that it is not just a personal story about a specific art piece, but that there is a bigger picture concerning how these thefts were handled after the war.

it's a really good story and i love it so much

Wonderful book that documents the history of the art and community of austria from the early 20th century through the war. Even more interesting is how some of our greatest artists and artist flourished at the time, and how all that talent came to such an upbrupt halt with the rise of the Nazis.From a non fiction historical point of view - this was far better than the movie, whose focus was the painting without the indepth view of the historical background

The book was even better than the movie, and includes the most comprehensive account of what happened to art and other property in Austria during WWII that I have ever read.

Fascinating account of the life of the elite in Vienna, Austria from WWI to WWII and after, with emphasis on paintings stolen by the Germans. This is history, not fiction. It recounts the unmitigated greed of and murderous inclinations of the Germans and the Austrians, who welcomed the Germans with open arms, but later pretending that they were victims of German aggression. The emphasis is upon the upper class Jewish Viennese.

My wife loved it. As a result. we went to the museum in Vienna and the Neue Gallery in NYC to see Klimt's work in person, so to speak.

A very well-written story following Gustav Klimt's painting The Lady in Gold from post WW 1 to the present day. I learned so much and could not put the book down. E.g., I did not know that the Jewish population of Vienna prior to WW II was a large part of Vienna's high society. Nor did I know that Hitler was rejected by the art school that Klimt attended.

I wish I had read this book before my recent trip to Vienna. It explains the uneasiness I felt in that city despite its outward appearance of urban and historic perfection. The book lays bare so many layers of the city’s history hiding in plain sight through the telling of a very important story of a grand piece of art. Such a great experience reading it! Now my husband is devouring it, and my two daughters are waiting in line. I am deeply grateful for the author’s art and vision in telling this remarkable story.

This book addedtothe information I learned in the film with Helen Mirren. The determination of Maria Altmann and her young lawyer is remarkable. Sheer willpower on their part to have Austria return her stolen Klimt paintings is remarkable. From this book and film, I have gone on to read more about Maria Altmann and the paintings. I like when a story leads me to discover more about the topic.

Saw the movie this book was based on, "Woman In Gold" and just had to read the book. The book obviously gives more detail and stories behind the characters in the film. Fascinating reading and made me want to go up to NYC to visit "Adele" myself.

Fascinating as the film Woman in Gold was, the book was even more so. It elaborated on the status and history of the Jews in late 19th c. Vienna, the life and career of Gustave Klimt, who painted the portrait of the rich Jewess, Adele Bloch-Bauer, in 1907, and then the subsequent deaths of both in 1918 and 1925, respectively, followed by the heart-rending era of Hitler with his march into Austria in 1938 under the Anschluss [reconnection], and finally, the legal pursuit on the part of Maria Bloch-Bauer Altmann, living in Los Angeles in 1998, to retrieve the portrait of her aunt from the Austrian government. She hired as her legal counsel, Randol Schoenberg, grandson of famous composer/musician Arnold Schoenberg. O’Connor’s research is deep and far reaching, and she has the added talent of brilliantly synthesizing many stories. For example, Mark Twain lived in Vienna for two years c. 1898, seeking to escape the sadness of the loss of a daughter. He befriended a number of Jews in the city, using his humor to attack the ever-present racism. Many famous Jews, such as Freud, Gustave Mahler, and Hedy Kiesler (Lamarr) also lived in Vienna. Some of the adjectives associated with the book are “stunning, brilliant, extraordinary, fascinating, richly drawn, passionate, lusciously detailed, intriguing, intensely affective.” A superb read.

Historical report of the times and a great human interest story. Should be read in School to remind us of the inhumanity that man can exhibit. Poignant, heart-wrenching .

Anne-Marie O'Connor has woven a rich tapestry, blending threads from a dozen narratives into a masterpiece. It's really two books. The first is a sensual recreation of the glittering, unreal world of the city's turn-of-the-century Jewish aristocracy and the artists and intellectuals who were a part of it. At the center of this world of silk and salons are the brilliant Klimt and the elusive Adele Bloch-Bauer. O'Connor's book is carefully documented but it reads like a novel--as well told as an Alan Furst thriller. Lurking beneath the surface of Klimt and Adele's world, of course, is the story of another artist, a hapless Austrian painter living in a flop house with toxic resentments that would eventually turn him into one of history's great monsters. The second book is the story of an elderly widow in L.A. who decides that, before she dies, she is going to give Austria's smug art establishment an exquisitely well-aimed kick in the groin.Anybody who's heard the words "I'm sorry, but if I made an exception for you, I'd have to…." will want to cheer.The Lady in Gold is a triumph.

My book group read this, and all felt like we were given a wealth of knowledge about war and art!

The Lady in Gold tells the story of the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer as well as other Klimt paintings through a historical as well as sociological lens. Austria's soon to be sordid history is an integral part of the story. The author gives very good background on what Vienna was like at the turn of the century and the vibrant intellectual life that existed. The Jewish bourgeoisie were patrons of the arts and saw beauty in the developing school of modern art. Klimpt not only painted the "famous" painting of Adele but also received commissions for many other paintings from the larger family. Adele Bloch-Bauer passed away in the early 1920's and left a will as to the disposition of the paintings. At the Anshluss, these and many other Klimt paintings were seized from their Jewish owners by the Nazis. Austria's role in the war was heinous and the behavior of the Austrian government after the war was not better. The government denied the rights of the paintings owners, made impossible conditions for the return of the goods that they stole and ultimately it is the American justice system that allowed Adele to be returned to her rightful heirs. It took the efforts of a number of people to recognize and fight for restitution of goods stolen by the Nazis, The book is a fascinating tale of detective work, persistence and legal work.

This is a fascinating and compelling account of three eras--the golden age of Austrian art and ideas at the turn of the century, the horrifying Nazi regime which effectively destroyed that culture, and the post-war period of reclamation, marred by deception and cover-up. The recent film, based on the same premise, simply does not do justice to the powerful story told in Ms. O'Connor's book. Despite the meticulous research evident in the narrative, it reads more like a suspense novel than a history lesson. This is a poignant account of what has been lost. However, Klimt's masterpiece, and other pieces still being painstakingly restored to the heirs of Nazi victims, remain as symbols of what should not be forgotten.

This book is a detailed account of the life of Golden Adele, painted by Klimt. Fascinating book and enjoyable to read . It reads more like a biographical novel of sorts but gives a great deal of facts in Adele and Klimt. Wonderful book!

An excellent, detailed story of the Nazi invasion on Austria through the lens of its effect on one family - the Viennese Bloch-Bauer family - and the Klimt paintings they owned. "The Lady in Gold," originally known as "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," was confiscated by the Nazis along with all the other valuables of the Jewish Bloch-Bauer family during the war. What makes this story stand out is that portrait survived the war, was identified by the survivors of the family, yet the Austrian government came up with justifications to keep it in Austria as a "national symbol" rather than return it to the family."The Rape of Europa" provides a summary of Hitler's rapacious desire for art at any cost. There is a brief chapter about "the Lady in Gold," but nothing to the extent provided by this book, which gives a far more detailed background on Klimt, his interaction with the women he painted, and the public reaction to his works. More importantly, this book gives a description of Austria's reception to Hitler, which is critical to understanding how the government and the people today view WWII - and why it was so hard for people who were facing danger, at the time, to leave. There is also a full story on individuals in the Bloch-Bauer family, and their treatment at the hands of steamrolling Nazis as well as their own countrymen.The ambiguity the Austrian government feels towards its history is palpable, and the treatment aged Maria Bloch-Bauer received at the hands of the museum and the Austrian government, the government of her homeland, is incredible. A saddening, interesting, and eye-opening story of Austria's role in WWII, and a reminder that much - not just money, but valued family memorabilia confiscated as spoils of war - has yet to be returned, 70 years after the Nazis were "defeated."

Such a fascinating tail of this beautiful in world renowned painting. Highly recommend. Also recommend the movie "woman in Gold" with Helen Mirren that tells the story in a very compelling way as well.

"They say now Austria was a victim of the Nazis. Believe me, there were no victims. The women were throwing flowers, the church bells were ringing. They welcomed them with open arms. They were jubilant." - Maria Altmann, Adele Bloch-Bauer's niece, who pursued the return of "The Lady in Gold" portrait"Those who have heard the story of the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer can never again see her as a 'lady in gold.' Frozen in Vienna's golden moment, Adele achieved her dream of immortality, far more than she ever could have imagined." - from THE LADY IN GOLDIn 1907, the celebrated Austrian artist Gustav Klimt created a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a prominent member of Vienna's Jewish high society and perhaps Klimt's lover. He entitled the painting "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" (as opposed to his 1912 "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II").Following the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany in 1938, Klimt's art was among that declared degenerate by the Nazis. His portraits, paintings, and drawings were appropriated or destroyed. His Jewish patrons had their assets stolen, then were driven to suicide, forced into exile, or sent to the camps.Much of Klimt's art survived World War II. The "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I", renamed by the Nazis "The Lady in Gold" to erase its subject's Jewishness, was in the possession of Vienna's Belvedere, a former royal palace reincarnated as a national art gallery. Subsequently, Austria and the Belvedere vigorously resisted any calls for the restitution of all stolen art to its former owners, Jewish or otherwise.The 2015 film  Woman in Gold  starred Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer living in Los Angeles, who successfully obliged the Austrian government to return the 1907 painting of her aunt (and four other Klimts) to the family in 2006.This book, THE LADY IN GOLD by Anne-Marie O'Connor, is essentially the comprehensive narrative back story of the movie - Klimt, his art, the Bloch-Bauer family, Adele, Maria, the effects of the 1938 Nazi Anschluss and the war years on all the story's characters who survived - as well as the fight to get the portrait returned to the Bloch-Bauer descendants and the aftermath of the restoration.As the author states on the last page of her book, those readers of it who have seen or will see the "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" will now not see that artwork (currently on display in New York City's Neue Galerie) from the same perspective.Having viewed the film and now read this book, I cannot but admire the author's thoroughness in telling the background to the former. It is, perhaps, too thorough. The ripples of Klimt's artwork touched many peripheral characters in the Bloch-Bauer family and unrelated contemporaries, and O'Connor didn't hesitate to include them in the narrative. As the war years progressed and the experiences of these individuals were portrayed, my reaction was: "Who ARE these people?" In any case, they were quickly and easily forgotten as I followed the path of the "Lady in Gold" portrait. Thus, the book is in need of some serious editing.The two protagonists in the film were Maria (Mirren) and her lawyer Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds). This focus might perhaps lead the viewer to believe that their battle to lever the five Klimt paintings out of Austria's grasp was a crusade universally supported by the four other involved heirs. The book reveals this not to be the case. Indeed, Maria's niece Nelly, a renowned cell biologist living in Canada, bitterly opposed the action. Then, once Austria gave them up, there was internecine disagreement on whether they should be donated to museums to ensure public display, which is what Adele ostensibly wanted, or sold at auction, which might cause them to disappear and never again be seen. Since it's a matter of public record, it's not a spoiler to point out that all five works of art were eventually sold for $327.7 million split 40:60 between Schoenberg and the heirs. And the author states that the four works other than "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" have vanished into private collections."Nelly wanted peace. Maria wanted atonement - recognition of a world swept away, an act of contrition." - from THE LADY IN GOLDThe effect of the book on the film, with the former's documentation of family infighting and a whiff of grubby cupidity, is to perhaps dull some of the luster of the gold leaf surrounding Adele. And nothing can place Austria in a better light.Last October, while on vacation in NYC, my wife and I stopped by the Neue Galerie specifically to inspect Adele's famous likeness. The museum was closed (on a Tuesday afternoon, can you believe!). I wish now we'd made more of an effort to return on Thursday.

O'Connor has produced a exhaustive work examining the artistic and Jewish intellectual life of Vienna before WWII that contains new historical facts as well as opens up new perspectives on what was once an essential cultural capital of Europe. Using the repatriation of an iconic symbol of the height of Viennese cultural life as a unifying theme, she painstakingly delves deeply into the lives of the principal families of patrons and artists who surround it, and carries the story forward with economy and precision into the current moment.What impressed me most about the writing was the way she crafted an utterly simple structure into a coherent whole while cramming an incredible, dizzying amount of different stories and personal testimony spanning a century. It's emotional roller coaster ride. The arc of history itself provides her with all the drama she needed, but I've read quite a few books written by professional historians and biographers that can take the same material and suck the life out of it through dry writing or excessive quotations. Her writing is light and factual, generally free of cliche and relies more heavily on perfectly chosen adjectives than purple prose or dubious conjecture.The first third of the book is a very pleasant and quickly told tale that manages to introduce most of the major figures of the art and intellectual world of Vienna before the occupation. Much of this concerns Adele, the Lady In Gold, and her extended family, and the lushly fertile setting of the glory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I devoured this easily, noticing that O'Connor was impressing me more than I expected by clearly introducing an abnormally large array of characters without blending them all together or wasting undue words.The second third of the book concerned itself with Maria and Nelly, two of the principal heirs of Adele's family, and how they dealt with the coming menace of the 3rd Reich and the war itself. At this point, the story is the same painful recounting of traumas we have read many times, and I was almost ready to give up, because I hate WWII books. But I was drawn in, instead, and found myself becoming emotionally involved by the simple, clear prose style. O'Connor handled scenes of brutality and injustice with incredible tact and dignity, and I think her restraint in this section - which could have devolved into melodramatic hysteria at any point, given the insanely horrible nature of those times - not only kept me glued to the book, but helped increase the emotional involvement I felt.The last third concerns itself with the mystery of the actual legal wrangling around the painting, which the reader is now quite concerned about. The natural progression of events, simple as they are, are presented in such a way, and with a subtle emphasis on a family that has suffered such grave injustice, that the fate of the painting and the contemptuous and presumptive manner in which it was kept from them, actually felt urgently important to me. She manages to get across the enormity of the wrangling over it, and the importance of whether it would ever leave Vienna becomes clear.Above all, I recommend this book because it is very well done. In structure, style, and content it is rich and satisfying. Secondly, this book brings the important cultural life of pre-war Vienna to life wonderfully. Anyone who has read "Cultural Amnesia" by Clive James should read it without hesitation; that book makes a great companion to it. The importance of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the capital Vienna was once essential until the Nazis ruined it, with the help of the Austrians themselves. Third, our cultural amnesia about the damage done to civilization by the Nazis is too easily dismissed or trivialized by hyperbolic comparison, and this book puts them into perspective. Not to mention a particularly chilling glimpse in the injustice of the communists who took over afterward.

Have a more in-depth understanding than the movie

Spends too much time on the artist's life rather than the story of returning the painting.

Our book club enjoyed it so much, we drove from Philadelphia to New York City to see the painting described in the book.

The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer
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