Let’s get this straight: The 2015 film Woman in Gold was amazing. The acting was impeccable, the screenplay was on point, and the movie brought the powerful story of Maria Altmann, a real-life Jewish refugee whose family’s art was stolen by Nazis in World War II, to life beautifully. And while Woman in Gold does tell the tale of Altmann (played by Helen Mirren) and her quest to reclaim a famous Klimt painting from the Austrian government fairly accurately, the real details behind Altmann’s life and the story of the Klimt are even more dramatic.
Here are some elements of the true story that weren’t in the film.
1. Rumors that Adele and Gustav Klimt were lovers
Gustav Klimt was known for being a playboy, taking many, many lovers. Is it possible he seduced the lovely Adele Bloch-Bauer (Antje Traue), the real woman in gold featured in the above portrait, during one of those long portrait sessions? In 2006, Adele’s niece, Maria Altmann, told The New York Times about asking her own mother if Adele and Klimt had an affair. “My mother got mad and said, ‘How dare you ask such a thing? It was an intellectual friendship.’ But I think it was very possible there was a romance.”
2. If there was an affair, it was probably short-lived
Some art historians claim that if you compare the two commissioned portraits of Adele, she looks incredibly sensual in the first painting with her full red lips, come-hither eyes and bare shoulder all surrounded in the decadence of gold leaf. The second portrait, painted five years later, shows a more matronly Adele, body covered up to her neck, and her luscious black hair is concealed beneath a hat, suggesting that any hot, passionate feelings the artist may have had for Adele had likely fizzled out.
3. The famous portrait took Gustav Klimt three years to complete
Czech sugar mogul Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, uncle to Maria Altmann (Helen Mirren), hired Gustav Klimt to paint two portraits of his wife, Adele (Maria’s aunt). The first and most famous of the two that later became known as “Woman in Gold” took Klimt three long, painstaking years to complete. It was finally finished in 1907.
4. Adele Bloch-Bauer’s deformed finger
The odd, tangled way in which Adele is clasping her hands is an effort to hide a misshapen digit that if painted accurately, may have belied the perfect image of youthful feminine beauty. Adele was 25 years old when the painting was commissioned.
5. The most spectacular view of the painting is from underneath
Maria Altman’s real-life lawyer, E. Randol Shoenberg (Ryan Reynolds in the film), recently told the Times of Israel that viewing the painting in person is a totally different experience than looking at a print. “If you go down on the ground and you look up, it changes the whole picture because of the overlay of the gold leaf; you can see the textures differently.”
6. Some considered Klimt’s art pornographic
Klimt was commissioned in 1894 to execute three paintings to decorate the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna. After taking over six years to complete them, many conservative entities considered the paintings — “Philosophy,” “Medicine” and “Jurisprudence” — to be overtly sexual in nature. They were never displayed to the public and were eventually destroyed by retreating Nazi troops in 1945.
7. Adele lost three babies
According to The New York Times, Adele gave birth to three babies. Sadly, one died within three days and the other two died within hours. Adele herself died of meningitis in 1925 at the age of 44.
8. Maria Altmann’s husband, Fredrick, detained at death camp
Adele’s niece, Maria, married an opera singer named Fredrick Altmann in 1937. After the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, Fredrick was held at Dachau concentration camp in an effort to put pressure on his brother, Bernhard Altmann, to allow Germans to take over his booming textile factory. Having already fled to London, Bernhard signed over his factory to the Nazis and Fredrick was released. Fredrick and Maria fled to America.
9. Maria Altmann became the American cashmere sweater queen
After Maria’s brother-in-law, Bernhard, started a new textile factory in Liverpool, England, he sent Maria a cashmere sweater to see if Americans might like the fine, soft wool that wasn’t available in the States at the time. Maria took the sweater to Kerr’s Department Store in Beverly Hills. After they began to sell them, other stores across America followed suit, and Maria eventually started her own clothing business.
Originally posted March 2015. Updated August 2017.