Vienna at the turn of the 20th century was a hotbed for modern thinkers, artists, and supporters of the arts. One of the local society leaders was Adele Bloch-Bauer, who held salons in her home, inviting luminaries such as noted anatomy professor Emil Zuckerkandl and his wife, the forward-thinking writer Berta, art historian Franz Wickhoff, and Secessionist artist Gustav Klimt. While these discussions fed her mind, there has been much speculation on the close relationship between Bloch-Bauer and Klimt; Albanese’s book recreates their world, and convincingly portrays an intimate involvement between the two.
Bloch-Bauer was the model for two of Klimt’s masterpieces, Judith I and Woman in Gold—scandalous at the time both for their extravagance and because Bloch-Bauer was Jewish. Bloch-Bauer then sat for Klimt again for a more sedate portrait commissioned by her philanthropist husband. The portraits disappeared during World War II, when Bloch-Bauer’s niece, Maria Altmann, and her generation were besieged by the Nazi invasion of Austria.
Chapters alternate between Adele’s story of love, light, and learning, and Maria’s desperate fight against hatred and darkness. Both women are smart, strong, and determined, and both are real: Albanese researched the lives and connections of aunt and niece, following Maria beyond the war as she rebuilt her life and her family. That family pursues the Klimt paintings, which themselves become characters in this narrative. Readers will be swept away by the depth of feeling and sensuous writing; whether depicting the salons of Vienna or its slums, the ballroom dances of debutantes or the takeover of a textile factory by German troops, Klimt fervently sketching, or the relaxed atmosphere of a coffee house, Albanese’s prose brings the people and the times to life. This novel is a bonanza of information about art history, philosophy, feminism, war, and love.