Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer (detail), 1914–16, oil on canvas. Private collection.

Tragedy beyond the canvas: Gustav Klimt's Elisabeth Lederer

Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer, painted over three years between 1914 and 1916, is an imposing, dazzling painting that speaks of the power, elegance and confidence of Vienna’s high society in the early 20th century. Those qualities are revealed here both explicitly and more covertly: in the sitter’s expression of calm self-assurance, for example, as well as in semi-concealed symbols surrounding the central figure.

One of two Klimt works on loan to the National Gallery of Canada for three years, Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer not only celebrates Vienna’s cultural and commercial elite, but also provides a kind of unintentional epitaph to a world that would soon cease to exist. As in Klimt’s other works, the large size of the canvas, the vibrant colours and abundant decorative detail all help to communicate the exuberant spirit of Vienna’s elite. His portrait of Elisabeth also speaks of a family’s formidable power. “If you look closely at the sitter’s robe, you’ll see two light blue dragons emerging from crested waves,” explains Kirsten Appleyard, Curatorial Assistant. “What this tells us, along with a number of other symbols, is that this is an emperor’s cloak. While Klimt used Oriental motifs in other works, this is the only portrait that contains imperial iconography, further underscoring the immense importance of Elisabeth and her family.” Apart from his paintings’ complex layers of meaning, Appleyard says, the fact that “they are captivating from a purely visual perspective, with their rich ornament and extravagant use of colour,” accounts for much of their recent surge in popularity.  

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer, detail of dragons.


In the case of the Elisabeth portrait, the historical circumstances surrounding the work provide a new way of looking at Klimt and his subjects that contrasts sharply with the feel of the actual work. It is ironic that a painting overflowing with life, light and optimism should depict a young twenty-year-old woman whose life would take a monumentally tragic turn within fifteen years of the painting's creation.

When Klimt painted Elisabeth, the only daughter of his greatest patrons, August and Szerena Lederer, the family was the second wealthiest in Vienna, behind only the Rothschilds. Their fortune, primarily from the distillery and starch industries, financed the assembly of a vast and much admired art collection. It contained many works by Klimt, who over a period of twenty years was commissioned to paint portraits of the mother (in 1899), the daughter and the maternal grandmother (Charlotte Pulitzer in 1917). He had also been commissioned to paint a posthumous portrait of Szerena's niece. As in much of his work, Klimt obsessed over the details in Elisabeth's portrait for years. Legend has it that it was only deemed finished when Szerena plucked the painting from the artist's studio and drove off with it. The Lederers would only let the painting leave their collection once, to the Austrian Art Exhibition in Stockholm in 1917. 

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer, 1914–16, oil on canvas. Private collection.


In just over a decade, the charmed life of young Elisabeth would turn into tragedy. It unraveled rapidly after her father’s death in 1936 and with Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. The following year the Nazis looted the Lederer art collection (except for the family portraits, which were deemed “too Jewish” to be worth stealing) and family members were forced into exile. Elisabeth would remain in Vienna, much to her peril: she had converted to Protestantism when in 1921 she married Wolfgang von Bachofen-Echt, heir to an Austrian brewery, but she became Jewish again after the couple divorced in 1934. “Within five years,” recounts Appleyard, “she was all alone in Vienna: her husband had divorced her, her only child had died and her mother had been forced to flee to Budapest.”

Facing persecution and likely death, Elisabeth circulated the story that Klimt, who was non-Jewish and had died in 1918, was her real father. Certain elements of the story – Klimt’s reputation as a philanderer, the artist’s obsessive commitment to painting Elisabeth and Elisabeth’s standing as a sculptor in her own right – supported the idea, although today it is generally dismissed as fiction. Elisabeth’s mother, Szerena, willingly signed an affidavit attesting to Klimt’s paternity in order to save her daughter. The scheme worked and the Nazi regime provided Elisabeth with a document stating that she was descended from Klimt. This – along with help from a former brother-in-law who was a high-ranking Nazi official – allowed her to live unharmed in Vienna until her premature death in 1944.

Art scholar Emily Braun, Distinguished Professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Centre, CUNY,  notes that Klimt has been criticized for being unconcerned with events in the larger world (an irony, given the devastating impact of social upheaval on the Lederer family). Elisabeth’s portrait, for example – although it was painted as World War I raged – remains firmly situated within the rarified, domestic world of Vienna’s elite, untouched by the turmoil of the world outside.

Appleyard says this insularity was a conscious feature of some European painting at the time. “The notion of interiority—both of the home and the mind—was one of the key elements of Viennese modernity,” she says. “Disillusioned by the failure of liberal politics, writers and artists withdrew from the public sphere and turned their attention toward the vibrant cultural life of the home.” Braun, however, rebuts the criticism of Klimt’s inward focus with the suggestion that his works do promote, although subtly, a specific social outlook. The artist’s embrace of cosmopolitanism—a defining feature of Vienna’s Golden Age is seen in his repeated use of Asian motifs. She takes Klimt’s resurgent popularity as evidence that his cosmopolitan worldview still resonates so many decades after it was extinguished in old Vienna.

Klimt’s elegant and inventive paintings give us much to marvel at, but the grim circumstances surrounding his Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer also force us to consider some unsettling and eerily current questions about artists’ relationship to the world in an age of great social upheaval. The story beyond the canvas, perhaps, is as crucial as what lies within the frame.    


Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer (1914–1916) is on view alongside Hope I (1903) and Forest Slope in Unterach on the Attersee (1917) at the National Gallery of Canada in Room C215. To share this article, please click on the arrow at the top right hand of the page. 



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