Klimt’s muse and art patron, Adele Bloch-Bauer, and Maria Altmann, Adele’s niece, narrate their lives and times in Vienna of fin de siècle and the first half of the 20th century. Klimt’s works of art and the Nazi occupation of Austria with the emotional scars and physical horrors inflicted on the Jewish population—first in Austria and eventually all over Europe—provide the backdrops, as do the Nazis’ thievery of art, wealth and goods.
Stolen Beauty has as its subjects the lives of Adele Bloch-Bauer—subject of Gustav Klimt’s portrait “Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer 1”, nicknamed by the Nazis “Lady in Gold”—and of Maria Altmann, Adele’s niece. Maria Altmann is the subject of the 2015 movie Woman in Gold, which chronicles her legal efforts to be recognized as the rightful heiress of the above-named portrait, and recover it after being illegally appropriated by the Nazis during their occupation of Austria in 1938.
If you saw the movie, as I did, you probably think you know the story that Stolen Beauty depicts, but it isn’t so. In Woman in Gold, Maria left her parents in Vienna and escaped the Nazis almost by chance, somehow making it to America where she lived until old age. Thus, Laurie Lico Albanese sets on a journey to bring Marie Altmann’s life as a newlywed in 1938, Vienna, her escape from the Nazis with her husband, first to England and then to America, and the dispersion of her brothers to Canada, and her uncle Ferdinand to Switzerland, where he died at the end of the war.
Stolen Beauty brings to life fin de siècle, Vienna, the Secessionist art movement of which Gustav Klimt was the most prominent figure, the upper stratus of Vienna’s society of which Adele Bloch-Bauer and her industrialist husband Ferdinand Bauer were indisputable rulers. Furthermore, the novel explores Adele Bloch’s youth as an idealist—with dreams of becoming an educated woman of the world, just as men could—, her friendship with Ferdinand Bauer (her sister Thedy’s brother-in-law), and eventually the marriage that cemented a dynasty.
Through the early years of the 20th century, we witness Adele become a woman ahead of her times as she reads philosophy, anatomy, classic literature, and art, and host salons for intellectual discussions about modernity. Of particular interest to Adele is the Secessionist art movement; she becomes Klimt’s patron, friend, and, according to Lico Albanese, much rumored lover. Adele’s friendship and patronage would spark Klimt’s critically acclaimed and much celebrated golden phase. In return, Klimt would awaken in young Adele a fiery sexual goddess.
Stolen Beauty, in case you haven’t discovered, has a dual narrative: Adele’s and Maria’s. It also includes, in italics, separate sections that focus on tidbits about the eras, and their personages. I had a hard time trying to forget what I knew from the movie Woman in Gold since both narratives are in disagreement, thus I think the novel can be best enjoyed if one has no previous exposure to the characters; that said I liked Stolen Beauty very much. The only thing that nagged somewhat was Adele and Klimt’s entanglement; I thought it was deceitful.
Stolen Beauty is a novel of art, love, loss, courage facing insurmountable odds, and sexual desire and awakening. It is also an exploration on marriage, faithfulness, and fulfillment as an individual within a marriage; it is a novel on promises broken, haunting memories, and finally, about redemption and the power of family. In all these counts, Stolen Beauty succeeds.