Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” the painting at the center of Anne-Marie O’Connor’s The Lady in Gold, is above all a call to worship. The canvas, which sold for $135 million in 2006, takes cues from the religious iconography of Byzantine mosaics, but in place of a saint there sits, amid the silver and gold, a pale siren, her neck clamped in a dazzling choker. Klimt loved to paint women, none more than Bloch-Bauer, a Jewish socialite whose friends included composer Gustav Mahler. Equal parts ennobling and exploitative, Klimt’s portrait of Bloch-Bauer came to symbolize in ensuing decades the opulence of turn-of-the-century Vienna, the audacity of Nazi art theft, and the hesitance of museums to make reparations following rapprochement. O’Connor–who freelances for the Washington Post’s Mexico City bureau, which her husband, William Booth, heads–skillfully navigates the bizarre orbit of Klimt’s masterpiece and the relentless efforts of Bloch-Bauer’s niece to retrieve from Austria what was rightfully hers. What the book’s illustrations lack in color–a flaw of many art-related titles–O’Connor compensates for with depth of insight and righteous indignation. Whether or not you’ve marveled at Klimt’s shimmering portrait before, you won’t look at it the same way again.
This article appears in the April 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.