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Woman in gold: the inspiring story of a very 20th century portrait

I am in New York for a few days on a trip that is part business and part pleasure. And I have a feeling that despite the time difference all the emails flying between me and some of the lawyers in my office give the impression I’m still in the next room.

But I’m not. I’m thousands of miles away in Manhattan, looking out from the 48th floor of a hotel that has stunning views over Central Park. As the saying goes: ‘It’s a tough job – but someone’s got to do it!’

Despite my work commitments, I have still managed to find time to visit one of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen. It is the golden portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt. She was a Viennese beauty who lived at the beginning of the 20th century, and her image reigns supreme in an art gallery that is in truth a fabulous Fifth Avenue mansion. The setting certainly befits someone like her, who during her lifetime was more than used to living in such surroundings.  She now resides just steps away from the former home of another 20th century icon, as Jackie Kennedy Onassis lived on the same block.

Jackie lived at 1040 Fifth Avenue, on the 15th floor of a 1930s building. When she left her home she could walk straight across 5th Avenue to a path that would lead to her favourite walk; around a reservoir in Central Park that now bears her name.

The portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer resides in the Neue Galerie. Once you have stepped inside the painting can be viewed by ascending a white marble staircase, and at the top of the stairs entering a drawing room replete with Viennese furnishings from the period.

I was knocked out when I viewed her portrait. She looks so modern, so ageless and so, so beautiful. All the Viennese art – which includes work by the great painters Oskar Kokoshka and Egon Schiele – the furnishings and the architecture in the Neue Galerie are from the same period.

But is not only the image itself that draws me to Adele’s portrait. It is the story behind how she came to be there that really fascinates me. It is a story of courage, bravery and a family held together through years of tragedy that ultimately found success against all the odds.

Before I left London I read the obituary of Maria Altmann, Adele’s niece who died very recently aged nearly 95. She had fought an almost impossible battle for the return of her aunt’s portrait, which had been looted in the Holocaust. I was full of admiration for her fight and this is what determined me to visit the portrait in New York.

How could Adele know what tragedy was to unfold during the 20th century? Or how hard her family would fight for her as she posed so gaily and beautifully for Klimt in 1907?

When she posed for that portrait the world was at her feet. She and her sister had married two wealthy brothers and both changed their names to Bloch-Bauer. Adele enjoyed the trappings of wealth and lived in a palace but died, tragically childless, of meningitis in 1925.

Her portrait fell into the estate of her husband, where it remained for several years until World War II. The Holocaust pulled the Bloch-Bauer family apart and they were lucky to survive. They had to escape and leave behind the gilded life they knew in Vienna. The family owned two portraits of Adele by Klimt, another painted in 1912, together with other paintings by the symbolist painter. But all the family wealth was lost as they were forced to flee. Ferdinand died in virtual poverty in Switzerland in 1946. He left a will bequeathing his estate to his nephews and niece Maria on the off chance that the family property would one daybe returned to its owners.

Maria was the only survivor who fought to have the paintings returned. She took on the Austrian government, into whose hands they had ultimately fallen. She first sued them in Austria but couldn’t afford the $1.5m court fee and the case was dropped. She then sued the Austrian government in the USA and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court where it ruled that the Austrian state was not immune from her action. The case was then referred to arbitration in Austria and Maria won in 2006.

The paintings were hers. She sold the golden portrait of Adele to the philanthropist and art collector Ronald Lauder, who with his friend Serge Sabarsky had opened the Neue Galerie in New York to rehouse German and Austrian art from the before the war. The sale price was reputedly some $135m and the painting became the new museum’s crowning glory.

Maria was criticised for the sale after fighting so hard to have the paintings returned. But I don’t share the criticism, as Adele was returned to a palatial mansion that matched the style in which she lived. I believe it gives a wonderful symmetry to the story and couldn’t think of anywhere else that she belongs to be. Adele died too young and was spared the horrors that befell her family. As a consequence she was and will always remain the gilded beauty in the painting.

Perhaps more importantly the painting is a symbol of the enduring and resilient qualities of family. Her niece’s determined struggle shows that family is what ultimately counts. Adele’s family won through against the greatest possible odds.

My trip along Fifth Avenue this week was quite an inspiring experience; imagining the lives of two beautiful women who are remembered as icons of the 20th century. Ronald Lauder described Adele as his Mona Lisa. That description is very apt indeed. She will forever smile serenely in her beautiful and deserved surroundings. Her family’s public courage mirroring that of another great family, the Kennedys, whose tragic history will also be forever entwined with that Fifth Avenue block.

The founder of Stowe Family Law, Marilyn Stowe is one of Britain’s best known family law solicitors and divorce lawyers. She retired from Stowe Family Law in 2017.

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