The Painted Kiss


In 1944, Emilie Flöge lives with her niece in their family’s country house at Kammer am Attersee, having fled their Vienna apartment to escape the Nazis. Gustav Klimt’s drawings of women he knew, loved, and painted—and often all three—were all Emilie was able to save of her former life. They release memories of her past.

The daughter of a prosperous manufacturer, Emilie and her two sisters grow up comfortably in 1870s Vienna. When she is twelve, her family meets painter Gustav Klimt at an imperial procession, and her father engages him to give Emilie drawing lessons. They become friends, and young Emilie gets introduced to Gustav’s sensual world of nude models, discarded mistresses, and decadent high society. A few years later they briefly become lovers, but their passion is not to last. Later, as proprietor of a Viennese fashion salon, which Gustav finances, Emilie obtains success on her own terms. Though she loves Gustav throughout her life, they prove to be better companions than lovers, and Emilie wisely knows that to keep him near, she must allow him his freedom.

With this beautifully written novel, Hickey has created a flesh-and-blood person from the few facts known of the life of Emilie Flöge, best known as the female model for Klimt’s masterwork. The bohemian atmosphere of the pre-war Viennese art world feels authentic, and the characters leap from the page. The exact year is often vague, however, and sometimes Emilie ages from chapter to chapter without warning. Though not as flamboyant as others from their coterie, Hickey’s protagonist proudly holds her own, and Gustav recognizes her inner strength for what it is. To dismiss her as merely his mistress or model would be demeaning.

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