The Cabal of Fabulous Rich Ladies Who Built Gustav Klimt’s Career

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Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer, from a new exhibit at Neue Galerie New York.Photo: Private Collection

Like Gustav Klimt’s most famous subject, Adele Bloch-Bauer (see: The Woman in Gold), the artist’s most crucial supporters were Viennese society women who hosted salons for artists and intellectuals at the turn of the 20th century. As patrons, these wealthy women and their families sponsored and collected Klimt’s work, posed as his muses, and cemented his status as the city’s most in-demand portraitist.

A new exhibit at Neue Galerie New York showcases portraits of six women whose stories are as vivid as Klimt’s pastel brushstrokes. After Ria Munk III committed suicide, when her fiancé called off their engagement, her family commissioned a posthumous portrait that Klimt never finished. A second portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (the only subject Klimt ever painted twice in full length) appears beside her iconic golden portrait for the first time in a decade. Preliminary sketches in a nearby room show Klimt’s attempts to hide Bloch-Bauer’s deformed finger — he draws her right hand into the folds of her yellow gown, or pushes her fingers up against her forehead.

Mannequins placed throughout the exhibit wear dresses made to mimic styles of the era by the Viennese fashion designer Emilie Flöge, another Klimt muse. They wear dresses in loose silhouettes by the Shanghai-based designer Han Feng and ornate paper hats by Brett McCormack.

Click ahead to preview the exhibit. “Klimt and the Women of Vienna’s Golden Age, 1900–1918” opened last Thursday at Neue Galerie New York and will be on view until January 16.