When I tell friends that some of my favorite adventures are in art museums, while many appreciate the art, they also comment that ‘I never could get into art history – it seems boring.’ I get it, on the surface history in general just feels like numbers and dates in a faraway time that don’t seem relevant in the hustle and bustle of the 21st-century…
However I always challenge that belief system because history and especially art history is something that unites us in our humanity. Art speaks to the soul -looking at a work of art like ‘Starry Night’ (MOMA) or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling conjures up a conversation in color, theme and the story of who we are.
What I ask as we continue to dive into museums and art history, don’t be afraid to let your curiosity guide you a bit. Be open to learning and discovering about the artists, their subjects and the stories behind the works of art. You’ll find that it is often got more drama and intrigue that the hottest show on Netflix.
We’re starting our tour of NYC’s art museums at The Neue Galerie. While not as large as The Met or famous as The Guggenheim, The Neue Galerie is the perfect introduction to learning about art and history.
I love large museums with thousands of years of art adorning the halls, but it can also be overwhelming, especially when you are just starting off on your art appreciation journey. Taking time to visit a smaller gallery with well curated works and spending several hours to truly ‘sit’ with the art and ‘have that conversation’ with the paintings relaxes the soul and gives you a deeper perspective than rushing from Monet to the other. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy my two day seven hour days at museums like The Met or Art Institute in Chicago, but art speaks best when we can just savor it in the moment…that is why I recommend starting off with a smaller gallery then moving your way up.
I was not familar with The Neue Galerie until I was thumbing through my NYC guide. I noticed a section on ‘hidden gems’ – ‘The Neue Galerie – home to The Woman in Gold.” My heart nearly leaped from my chest in excitement.
I always felt a bit of a kinship with Adele because we share a name. (My name is Adele)
When I discovered that this painting was in NYC, I told my mom we must make a pilgrimmage to see Adele at The Neue Galerie.
I first studied ‘The Woman in Gold (Adele Bloch-Bauer I)’ painting in college at Belmont University. We learned about how Austrian artist Gustav Klimt, the son of a gold cutter, was influenced by Byzantine art after a trip to Ravenna’s San Vitale in Italy. Byzantine art mosaic tells glorious stories with gold and glass mosaic…Klimt fused this with his own unique style to create an entirely new brand of art.
The story of ‘The Woman in Gold’ is one of hope, tragedy and restitution. The painting was commissioned by Adele’s husband Ferdinand in 1903.
Adele and her husband were both of the Jewish aristocratic class in Vienna. Ferdinand made his wealth in developing a sugar beet empire. Adele was learned and unafraid to speak her mind, having conversations about everything from philosophy to economics with leading figures of the time, including Sigmund Freud.
Ferdinand commissioned the painting to immortalize his love for his wife. Klimt created what is known as Austria’s Mona Lisa. Adele is wearing her favorite necklace and is adorned in gold like a Byzantine icon. The gylphs also include an Egyptian artistic vibe that lures the viewer in. But at the end of the day, it is not the gold that haunts us – it is Adele’s face – her beauty and thoughtful glance, elegant and inviting.
Unfortunately Adele died young from meningitis at age forty. She left behind her husand as well as her sister’s family, including niece Maria Altmann (we’ll get there in a minute)
The Bloch-Bauer family were important members of the Austrian community in Vienna, but with Hitler’s rise to power their legacy was stolen. The Gestapo seized everything from Adele’s relatives. Many of Adele’s friends died horrific deaths during the war. Fortunately her nieces (Maria and Luise) were able to survive but it was only after extreme persecution.
The Nazis stole the family’s Klimt paintings and other artwork without remorse – putting them in the Belvedere Palace Museum in Vienna. They erased Adele’s name and her Jewish background, instead calling her the ‘Lady in Gold’
For over sixty-eight years, Adele lived in the Belvedere Palace before her niece, Maria was finally able to get the paintings back. I won’t go into all the details here, but suffice to say it was not easy. The Austrian government did not want to part with their most treasured painting and were unwilling to admit wrongdoing in the original art theft.
You can learn more about the real life story of Gustav Klimt, Adele, Maria, and the stolen artwork in the 2015 movie ‘The Woman in Gold’ with Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds. (as of 2023 it is on Netflix)
After The Woman in Gold was rightfully restored to Maria in 2006, she sold the painting to Ronald Lauder (son of Estee Lauder) for $135 million dollars with the stipulation it always be on public view.
*I also recommend reading ‘The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor,’ which the movie based on. She delves into the history of Klimt, Adele, World War II and the restitution. A page-turner…
This museum link gives an easy to read timeline of the Adele Bloch-Bauer I painting.
- Why ‘Adele Bloch-Bauer I?’ – Klimt did a second painting of Adele, which is sadly not on public display.
Touring The Neue Galerie:
The Neue is only a few hundred feet from The Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue’s Museum Mile (we did both on the same day).
Pro-tip: I recommend purchasing tickets online in advance of your visit
The building itself is a work of art. The curator told me that it was built in 1914 by Carrère & Hastings, the architects of the glorious New York Public Library for industrialist William Starr Miller. It was later occupied by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt III before becoming part of the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research.
Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sbarsky bought the building 1994 with the goal of establishing an art museum. They enlisted architect Annabelle Selldorf for the renovation of the building, which feels as though you are stepping back into 1914 and the glorious heritage of this Fifth Avenue gem. The rooms are perfectly set to display the art as if you were in someone’s living room.
This is particularly fitting of the Adele Bloch-Bauer portrait which originally hung so lovingly in the Bloch-Bauer home in Vienna.
The Neue Galerie features world renowned Austrian-German works, including its Klimt collection on three floors. They also feature unique exhibits.
Photography was not allowed in the museum halls, so I cannot share images from my visit in this post, but you can view the art on their website.
One of my favorite Austrian artists, Oskar Kokoschka is heavily represented at The Neue. Kokoschka heavily influenced the Viennese Expressionist movement.
During our visit we were blessed to see highlights from the Lauder collection including Renaissance masterworks by Daddi and more. They also had an awesome armor exhibit. I usually prefer paintings over military artifacts, but the history and splendor the armor could not be ignored. It felt as though I’d stepped into the 1500s during a joust.
Pro-tip: While many come for The Woman in Gold, be sure to take time and enjoy the other amazing artists and exhibits at The Neue. The museum is not large so you can really take your time and let the art speak to you. I recommend starting on the top floor and working your way down (but either way you’ll see AMAZING art)
- Viewing art that ‘doesn’t speak to you.’: While some modern art is too clustered for my tastes, an art curator once told me, even if you don’t love a piece it is okay, but at least give it a moment to speak to you. What do I mean ‘speak to you.’ Art, like music has the universal ability to insight emotion – be it that pull at the heartstrings when you see a beautiful painting or the empathy of seeing scenes of heartache and confusion. There are certain styles of art I don’t love, but I’ve learned to at least appreciate. I might move quickly on after seeing them, but with an open mind you might discover a new artist you otherwise wouldn’t like.
- With our phones attached to our body, don’t be afraid to ‘google’ an artist and read their bio or about the piece. You might discover a hidden meaning in the art or a drama that speaks to our human story.
Also at The Neue Galerie:
- They have an amazing bookstore with many books on Austrian and German art as well as art souvenirs from magnets to bookmarks and cards. You can order online from their website too!
- The Neue Galerie cafe has a scrumptious menu and elegant setting.
- Café Sabarsky, which bears the name of Neue Galerie co-founder Serge Sabarsky, draws its inspiration from the great Viennese cafés that served as important centers of intellectual and artistic life at the turn of the century. It is outfitted with period objects, including lighting fixtures by Josef Hoffmann, furniture by Adolf Loos, and banquettes that are upholstered with a 1912 Otto Wagner fabric. A Bösendorfer grand piano graces one corner of the Café, and is used for all cabaret, chamber, and classical music performances at the museum. Café Sabarsky is under the direction of Michelin-starred Executive Chef Christopher Engel. (from their website)
Next up we’re heading to The Guggenheim…
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Purpose of American Nomad: To share my love of travel, history and museums with others. Follow American Nomad on facebook here.
About: American Nomad is written by Adele Lassiter, a travel enthusiast with a background in history, art and technology sales. In addition to running American Nomad, Adele is an artist and published author of cozy romances. Check out her cozy romance novel, Solitude Lake on Amazon (Adele Darcy)