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 2015 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.
Altmann led 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.
She was robbed when the Nazis took over Austria
Altmann was left with only memories of the paintings, as they were stolen when the Nazis took over Austria 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. Altmann recalled: “My father died two weeks after that. He died of a broken heart.” Of course, the Nazis seized all of Ferdinand's assets, which included his vast art collection. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I became known as Woman in Gold, as well as a symbol of all that the family had lost.
The Altmanns fled to America
The Nazis held Fredrick at Dachau concentration camp to persuade his brother, Bernhard, to sign over his lucrative textile factory to them. Bernhard had already escaped to London by this time, but when he heard the news about his brother, he gave the Nazis his business, and in turn, Frederick was set free. The couple then lived under house arrest until Altmann 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. The Altmanns then fled to America and ultimately settled in California.
While Frederick was working for aerospace firm Lockheed Martin in California, Bernhard had started a new textile factory in Liverpool, England. He sent Altmann a cashmere sweater to see if Americans might like the fine, soft wool. Altmann took the sweater to a department store in Beverly Hills, which agreed to sell them. Other stores across the country followed suit, and Altmann eventually 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 Altmann never forgot what the Nazis stole from her family.
She battled the Austrian government to get the paintings back
For many years, Altmann had assumed that the Austrian National Gallery had taken possession of the Klimt paintings. 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 Altmann arrived there, she defied the security guards to be photographed beside her Aunt Adele, saying loudly: “That painting belongs to me.”
For many years, Altmann battled the Austrian government with great fervor. “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.’ ”
Altmann and her lawyer took their case all the way to the Supreme Court and won. However, an independent arbitration followed in 2004, resulting in Altmann's favor. Two years later, the art finally found its way to her home in Los Angeles, becoming the most expensive return of Nazi-stolen art at that time.
Altmann 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 purchased for a painting.