Eye Candy for Today: Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Gustav Klimt
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (detaile), Gustav Klimt

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (also sometimes called “Woman in Gold” or “Lady in Gold”), Gustav Klimt; gold leaf, silver leaf, and oil on canvas; 55 x 55 inches (140 x 140 cm); in the collection of the Neue Galerie, New York.

Link is to the file page for the Neue Galerie version of the image on Wikimedia Commons.

This and The Kiss are the most widely recognized works by 19th century Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt.

Both paintings are from Klimt’s “Golden Phase”, in which — inspired by the use of gold leaf in Byzantine mosaics in Venice and Ravenna — he began to incorporate gold leaf into his paintings. This is the most elaborate of his works from the period, incorporating not only the metal leaf, but bas-relief created with dimensional applications of gesso.

It is titled “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” because Klimt painted a second, much less complex and dramatic portrait of her.

There is a Wikipedia page devoted to the painting that goes into more detail, including the sexual subtext of its imagery and the story of its disposition and seizure by the Nazi regime.

You will find many images of this work that are much brighter, more saturated and shifted in hue — even on the Wikipedia article about the painting.

However, if you follow that link to Wikimedia Commons, as I did, you will find a very different, darker and considerably more subdued version of the image as supplied by the Neue Galerie. The Wikimedia editors indicate the Neue Galerie image has superseded the brighter version as the recommended version of the image.

The bright version looks to me like it suffers — as do so many online art images — from someone throwing the image into Photoshop and cranking up the brightness and saturation because the more faithful image isn’t “pretty” enough.

However, at the risk of being hoist on my own petard, I have slightly increased the exposure on the version of the Neue Galerie’s image that I’m showing here.

it has been my experience in regard to images with which I’m personally familiar, that many museums and galleries post images of works in their collections that are darker than the real object. (Why this is so still eludes me.)

I have not had the pleasure of seeing this painting in person, but my guess is that the appearance of the real work is somewhere between the two versions, and closer to the Neue Galerie version. If someone who has seen the work in person can correct me, please do. I’ve based my adjustment on images of other works by Klimt from the same time period.

9 Replies to “Eye Candy for Today: Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”

  1. I’m trying to image designing this and then going in and creating each and every square, circle, triangle, ellipse…it boggles the mind. I like his other portrait of her, too—almost as equally detailed, in a different, busy way with all those tapestries and rugs.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Melissa. Yes, gold leaf is painstaking to apply in itself, let alone over the textural gesso relief. He spent a good deal of time on the portrait.

  2. I studied Gustav Klimt in Vienna 50 years ago, before he became Gustav Klimt Superstar. The problem with this portrait and The Kiss, is that it is nearly impossible to photograph an irregular surface in gold. The gold is so reflective, that, depending on time of day or angle of light, different parts light up and others darken. The whole thing shimmers. This can only be captured in person, and preferably, in natural light. On the whole, I think your version is a bit dark, but closer than any I’ve seen on line.

    1. Thanks, James. I appreciate your insight into the actual appearance of the painting; and the explanation for why this work, in particular, might appear distinctly different in photographs under different lighting conditions.

      On a side note, are the colors in your own colored etchings applied with a second inking of the plate, or are you applying watercolor to the print?

      (For the benefit of other readers, I’m referring to James DeBoer’s etchings as seen here.)

  3. The colors come on a second plate. On this plate, the area to be colored is aquatinted and the colored ink applied and wiped according to standard technique. This is actually the first to be printed, producing the region of color, and then the subsequent plate of black line, or black line plus aquatint, is printed over it as the keyplate.

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