Who Was Maria Altmann? The Real Story Behind 'Woman in Gold'

"Woman in Gold," an emotional new film that opens this week, stars Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, a real-life Jewish refugee whose family's art was stolen by Nazis in World War II.
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"Woman in Gold," an emotional new film that opens this week, stars Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, a real-life Jewish refugee whose family's art was stolen by Nazis in World War II.

The titular character in Woman in Gold is Adele Bloch-Bauer, whose husband, Czech sugar mogul Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, commissioned Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt, to paint two portraits of his wife when she was 25 years old. The first and most famous of the two later became known as “Woman in Gold.” The film focuses on Bloch-Bauer's niece Maria Altmann, played by Helen Mirren, and her quest to reclaim the famous Klimt painting from the Austrian government, but there is a lot more to her story. 

A Charmed Childhood

Maria Viktoria Bloch-Bauer was born to Gustav Bloch-Bauer and Therese Bauer on February 18, 1916, in Vienna, Austria. Her wealthy Jewish family, including her uncle Ferdinand and aunt Adele, were close to the artists of the Vienna Secession movement, which Klimt helped establish in 1897. The avant-garde of the Austrian capital included the composer Arnold Schoenberg. (The lawyer who handled Altmann's case was E Randol Schoenberg, the composer's grandson. Ryan Reynolds portrays him in the film.) 

Although Altmann was not old enough at the time to remember Klimt's visits, she grew up visiting her uncle and aunt's grand house, which was filled with pictures, tapestries, elegant furniture and a collection of fine porcelain. Adele would often hold court for musicians, artists and writers in the salon of her huge house on Elisabethstrasse near the Wiener Staatsoper (the Vienna State Opera house).

However, the world came to know Adele as Klimt had painted her in 1907. He depicted her in a swirling gown within a blaze of gold rectangles, spirals and Egyptian symbols—she became the epitome of Vienna's Golden Age. In 1925, Adele died of meningitis at the age of 44. Afterward, Altmann recalled that the family’s regular Sunday brunches at her uncle’s house always included a viewing of the portrait, as well as four other works by Klimt, including another later painting of Adele.

Adele Bloch-Bauer Photo

Maria Altmann's aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer, circa 1910. (Photo: Neue Galerie New York)

Robbed of Everything

Altmann was left with only memories of the paintings, as they were stolen when the Nazis took Austria over in 1938. She had just married opera singer Fritz Altmann and her uncle had given her Adele's diamond earrings and a necklace as a wedding present. But the Nazis stole them from her—the stunning necklace she wore on her wedding day was sent to Nazi leader Hermann Göring as a present for his wife. Her father Gustav was most devastated when his prized Stradivarius cello was taken from him. Maria recalled: “My father died two weeks after that. He died of a broken heart.” Of course, the Nazis also seized Ferdinand's entire art collection, his porcelain collection and his sugar refinery. “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” became known as “Woman in Gold,” as well as a symbol of all that the family had lost.

A Woman in Gold

Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907 by Gustav Klimt. (© 2015 Neue Galerie New York)

Forced to Flee

The Nazis held Fredrick Altmann at Dachau concentration camp to pressure his brother, Bernhard Altmann, to allow them to take over his booming textile factory. Having already fled to London, Bernhard signed over his factory to the Nazis and Fredrick was released. The couple then lived under house arrest until Maria managed to elude the guards by claiming that her husband needed a dentist. The two boarded a plane to Cologne and made their way to the Dutch border, where a peasant guided them across a brook, under barbed wire and into the Netherlands. Fredrick and Maria then fled to America and ultimately settled in California.

Living a New Life in America

While Frederick was working for aerospace firm Lockheed Martin in California, Bernhard had started a new textile factory in Liverpool, England. He sent Maria a cashmere sweater to see if Americans might like the fine, soft wool. Maria took the sweater to a department store in Beverly Hills, which agreed to sell them. Other stores across the country followed suit, and Maria eventually started opened her own clothing boutique. The couple had three sons and a daughter in America, building a life together in a country that welcomed them. Yet Maria never forgot what the Nazis stole from her family. 

Maria Altmann Photo

Maria Altmann in 2010. She fought the Austrian government for the return of her family's paintings that were stolen by the Nazis during World War II. (Photo: Gregor Collins/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons)

Fighting for & Winning Restitution

For many years, Maria supposed that the Klimt paintings had legitimately ended up in the Austrian National Gallery. But when she was 82, she learned from the tenacious Austrian investigative journalist Hubertus Czernin that the title to the paintings was hers, and she vowed to get them back. In 1999, she and her lawyer tried to sue the Austrian government. It had kept the paintings based on Adele’s will in which she made a “kind request,” that Ferdinand donate the paintings to the state museum after his death, which took place in 1945. 

In so doing, it disregarded the fact that his own will had left his estate to his nieces and nephews. Yet the paintings hung in Vienna’s Austrian Gallery at Belvedere Palace with a placard inscribed: "Adele Bloch-Bauer 1907, bequeathed by Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer." When Maria arrived there, she defied the security guards to be photographed beside her Aunt Adele, saying loudly: “That painting belongs to me.”

For many years, Maria fought the Austrian government with great zest. “They will delay, delay, delay, hoping I will die,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 2001, with no end in sight to her case. “But I will do them the pleasure of staying alive.”

She did and she triumphed. After the paintings arrived in the United States, she told The New York Times: “You know, in Austria they asked, ‘Would you loan them to us again?’ And I said: ‘We loaned them for 68 years. Enough loans.’ ”

Maria and her lawyer had argued as far as the Supreme Court that the case should be heard in America and they won. However, in 2004, they went to independent arbitration where three Austrian academics decided that the paintings should be returned. In 2006, the paintings arrived with fanfare in Los Angeles. At the time, it was the largest single return, in monetary terms, of Nazi-looted art.

On View in Manhattan

Maria said her Aunt Adele had always wanted her golden portrait in a public gallery. Ronald Lauder, a businessman and philanthropist who had loved Adele's face from boyhood, happily paid $135 million to enshrine her in his Neue Galerie in Manhattan. At the time, it was the largest sum ever paid for a painting. The painting is currently part of a new exhibition at the Neue Galerie, opening on April 2, which was created in conjunction with the Woman in Gold movie. 

Altmann died on February 7, 2011 in Los Angeles. She is survived by her sons, Charles, James and Peter, a daughter, Margie, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.