Gustav Klimt’s Last Painting Was Among His Best – The American Spectator

Table of Contents

Ohne jene Kunst würden wir Nichts als Vordergrund sein und ganz und gar im Banne jener Optik leben, welche das Nächste und Gemeinste als ungeheuer gross und als die Wirklichkeit an sich erscheinen lässt.

Without art we would be nothing but foreground and would live entirely under the spell of that perspective which makes what is closest at hand and most vulgar appear as if it were vast, and reality itself.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (1882)


Frühling in Wien. Springtime in Vienna. A simple phrase that conjures up a multitude of charming images: the thousands of chestnut trees lining the Hauptallee all bursting into bloom at once, the throngs of Sunday picnickers in the Wurstelprater, the elderflower spritzers served at sidewalk Schanigärten, the annual flower shows and garden fairs, the foragers in the Vienna Woods rooting around for early shoots of wild garlic. In the year 1917, however, these quintessentially Viennese pursuits lacked their usual savor. Elsewhere in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, along the Isonzo River, in the Carpathian Mountains, and in the Balkans, the lavish bloodletting of the Great War continued apace. Emperor Franz Josef I, having reigned for sixty-eight years, finally paid the toll due to nature, and was laid to an eternal rest in a stone sarcophagus beneath the Capuchin Church. And wartime poverty had begun to invade the spirits of the Viennese, with crowds chanting “We are hungry, give us something to eat! Expel the Jews who are eating everything up!” — a libelous vilification, and a warning of far worse to come.

It is worth noting that, despite the word being routinely used in unthinking newspaper copy, the Portrait of Fräulein Lieser was never “lost.”

It was on a May day in that anxious year of 1917 that a young woman made her way to no. 11 Feldmühlgasse, a secluded spot in western Vienna’s Hietzing district, situated about halfway between the Baroque confection of the Schloss Schönbrunn and the wide woodlands of the Lainzer Tiergarten. There she found herself in a lush suburban sanctuary hidden within the sprawling imperial city, a pastoral idyll shielded from the horrors and upheavals of the age, where lay a single-story cottage home belonging to the reclusive symbolist painter Gustav Klimt. The Fräulein followed a gravel path through a garden full of budding Damask rose shrubs and fruit trees, passed beneath bowers of drooping foliage, and crossed the threshold into Klimt’s rustic home. (READ MORE from Matthew Omolesky: Most Americans Can’t Find Ukraine on a Map. That Doesn’t Dilute Our Duty to Defend It.)

She was received by the painter, who was sporting his trademark floor-length blue smock, and together they processed through rooms adorned with Japanese woodcuts and Wiener Werkstätte furniture, not to mention a considerable number of cats, and into a light-filled atelier. This was her ninth such visit, and the lady was by now quite familiar with the established ritual of portrait-sitting, which entailed arranging a cerulean flower-embroidered cloak over her shoulders, and assuming the same confident frontal pose she had taken during her eight previous sittings. This was to be her last time in the studio, as Klimt was evidently putting the finishing touches on the three-quarter length portrait. When her time was up, the Fräulein left the cottage, left the leafy Hietzing district, and returned to bustling, roiling central Vienna, having no idea that she had provided Klimt with the material for his very last portrait.

Gustav Klimt died of a stroke nine months later, on February 6, 1918, leaving his likeness of the young Viennese lady unfinished and unsigned. Some charcoal marks and stenciling remain on the patchy red, orange, and mauve abstract background, suggesting that Klimt had more to add, perhaps intending to bring it in line with another one of his final works, Dame mit Fächer, or Lady with a Fan, which was also resting on an easel at the time of his demise, and featured a riot of blossoms and exotic birds behind the female figure. Or perhaps not, given that a similarly busy background would likely have clashed with the woman’s richly-decorated cloak. In most other respects the portrait seems to be complete — the product of the subject’s many trips to Klimt’s studio between April and May of 1917 — although the black outline around her hands is a bit thicker than one would expect, as opposed to the more delicate treatment found in works like the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) and the Portrait of Friederike-Maria Beer (1916). 

We cannot know what the final product would have looked like, had Klimt not put the portrait aside before contracting Spanish flu, coming down with bacterial pneumonia, and then suffering a fatal stroke. The greatest mystery of all, however, is the precise identity of the young woman herself. She is generally thought to have been one of the daughters of Justus and Henriette (Lilly) Lieser, either Hélène or Anna, or perhaps one of their cousins, Margarethe Constance Lieser, the daughter of the industrialist Adolf Lieser, so the work has been given the vague name of Bildnis Fräulein Lieser, or Portrait of Fräulein Lieser. Upon Klimt’s death, the painting was apparently delivered to Lilly Lieser’s residence at the Palais Lanna in Vienna’s Wieden district, and appeared in public one more time, in 1925, at a Klimt retrospective at the Neue Galerie. When the Lieser family’s art collection was “aryanized” — illegally appropriated — by the Nazi authorities after the Anschluß, the portrait was not among those seized, so it must have passed to another private collection in the meantime. The Portrait of Fräulein Lieser was thereafter considered “lost” for nearly a century, surviving only in the form of a black and white photograph taken at the time of the 1925 Neue Galerie exhibition.


In the early days of 2024, the Viennese auction house Im Kinsky announced the forthcoming sale of Gustav Klimt’s vanished masterpiece, scheduled for April 24, news which took the art world entirely by surprise. It turned out that the owners of the portrait, who remain anonymous, approached the auction house in 2022 about the possibility of putting the painting up for sale. Ernst Ploil, a managing director at Im Kinsky, was able to confirm that the Portrait of Fräulein Lieser had changed ownership three times since 1960 by way of bequest, and although the provenance of the portrait between 1925 and 1960 remains elusive, it has further been determined that it was not unlawfully seized during the Nazi era, and there are no outstanding Nazi-looted art claims pertaining to it. A settlement was nevertheless reached with the legal successors of the Lieser family, enabling them to receive a share of the proceeds of the auction — expected to amount to somewhere between €30 and €50 million.

The anonymous owners of the Klimt portrait have timed their sale well, given the astronomical auction prices for works by the Vienna Secessionist master in recent years. Klimt paintings have always commanded a pretty penny — his 1905 portrait of Karl Wittgenstein’s daughter Margaret was commissioned for 10,000 crowns, an order of magnitude higher than the average middle-class yearly salary at the time — but their value in the twenty-first century has become almost ludicrous. Klimt’s Birch Forest went for a hammer price of $104.6 million in 2022, while his landscape Insel Im Attersee and his Lady with a Fan both went on the block the following year, netting $53 million and $108.4 million respectively. Back in 1994, by way of comparison, Lady with a Fan was sold by Sotheby’s for $11.6 million (roughly $24 million when adjusted for inflation), while the 2023 auction, again by Sotheby’s, represented the highest price ever paid for a work of art in a European public sale. The unfinished  Portrait of Fräulein Lieser is unlikely to go quite so high, but will assuredly garner a substantial sum. In order to stoke interest in the sale, Im Kinsky has sent Fräulein Lieser’s likeness off on a global tour, with stops in the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, and Hong Kong. Thus Klimt’s “lost” masterpiece has returned to the public eye after almost a century in obscurity.

Viewed one way, the last Klimt is simply a charming portrait, a captivating image of a young Viennese woman.

It is worth noting that, despite the word being routinely used in unthinking newspaper copy, the Portrait of Fräulein Lieser was never “lost.” Since at least 1960, the painting has been in the possession of the anonymous family which now stands, along with the Lieser heirs, to make a veritable fortune when it goes on the market. There is a regrettable tendency to consider a painting lost or somehow misplaced if it is not on display in a public or private museum, or routinely featured in exhibitions, retrospectives, or catalogues raisonnés. Yet portraits are primarily for domestic consumption, and there is always something a bit jarring about seeing, say, those endearing little portraits of cherubic Georgian children by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Romney, Raeburn, Hoppner, Zoffany, or Lawrence hanging limply on a museum wall, rather than in the manor house or townhome in which they belong, just as there is something sordid about sculptures or frescos being torn out of a church or temple and placed in a sterile museum gallery, to be glanced briefly and immediately forgotten, instead of being treated with the veneration they once received and still deserve. (READ MORE: ‘Virus of Freedom’ Spreading in Russia: Alexei Navalny and the Vladimir Highway)

The German-Bohemian writer Johannes Urzidil, in his captivating 1966 tale “The Duchess of Albanera,” tells the story of a Praguian bank clerk by the name of Wenzel Schaschek who steals a mannerist portrait of the Duchess Eleonor of Albanera from the State Gallery. Having hidden the purloined picture in his apartment, Schaschek addresses his guest:

Your Highness doesn’t look too happy today. I admit that for a lady of your station staying in an armoire is a little unorthodox. But for Your Majesty, as well as for me, a whole new era has dawned. Bear in mind that you now have a private life again. Is it really so desirable to be in a gallery under the surveillance of plebeian guards, always stuck in the same spot, at the mercy of the curious and shameless gazes of every petit bourgeois who comes along, every adolescent brat, every snobbish schmuck? Isn’t that a thousand times worse than being in a prison, rightfully or wrongfully, or in a convent, where at least you can live a spiritual life even though it may be against your will?

Toasting his new flatmate, Schaschek concludes:

With me you’ll live, dear Duchess, because I live with you. In the big museum, which admittedly has something palatial about it, you were merely preserved, kept chemically healthy, a thermometer, barometer, and hygrometer showing the experts that you were doing well. Were you doing well? But here, albeit in a modest environment, you can lead a normal life, may fulfill your duties, might share my joys and cares and are not only given admiration as nourishment but — as it is between human beings — the occasional piquancy of a loving objection or (now, for example) blissful praise.

Urzidil was not, of course, endorsing art theft, but rather emphasizing the sheer intimacy of portraiture, so out of place in impersonal museums, which are, as the Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila maintained, “el invento de una humanidad que no tiene puesto para las obras de arte, ni en su casa, ni en su vida [the invention of a mankind that has no place for works of art, either in its home, or in its life].”

The Portrait of Fräulein Lieser belongs in a Viennese apartment, above the hearth in a bright and airy parlor, or on the wall of a well-traveled hallway, or arresting the passerby’s attention from atop a marble staircase, and not “at the mercy of the curious” in a public gallery. Yet in all likelihood, when the gavel strikes, the portrait will go not to a museum but to the likes of Patti Wong, of Patti Wong & Associates, who purchased the Lady with a Fan last year on behalf of an unknown Hong Kong collector. After all, cash-strapped museums can no longer compete with mega-collectors at these Klimt auctions; Insel Im Attersee and Birch Forest likewise went to anonymous private buyers. The Portrait of Fräulein Lieser thus has come to represent not a memento of a beloved family member, or a part of our collective cultural patrimony, but a prize for a private collector, destined to become part of an investment portfolio, with the potential to achieve massive returns by dint of its inherently non-fungible nature. 

The best case scenario, given the rise of mysterious but fabulously-wealthy mega-collectors and the concomitant decline of public museums, is what the Brussels-based art collector Alain Servais has termed the “schaulager,” which “is a kind of storage site but one equipped with a team that makes sure your collection is known by all the museums and curators in the world. You make sure that the works are lent and shown regularly. That for me is the future.” It is not a particularly democratic future, certainly, but at least those works would be made available for occasional exhibitions and serious researchers, and protected from the vandalistic depredations of Just Stop Oil activists, and from progressive museum curators who insist on informing visitors that, for example, Constable landscape paintings evoke “dark nationalist feelings” — what the art critic Waldemar Januszczak calls the “collapse here of useful scholarship and its replacement by wokeish drivel.”


Klimt’s final, unfinished portrait disappeared from public view in 1925. Unlike most masterpieces, it then lived what Urzidil called a “normal life,” sharing the joy and pain of several generations of an anonymous Viennese family, until its value reached such a level that a public sale became inevitable. Now it is criss-crossing the globe, and art collectors and investors will soon be trying to outbid each other and lay their hands on the last Klimt. It is tempting to wonder whether the Portrait of Fräulein Lieser is “worth” €50 million, but this is an uninteresting question, since the value of an item is mutually determined by market participants, and that is more or less that. It is rather more useful to consider the portrait on its own merits.

In his later years, Klimt left behind the intricate geometric patterns and grandiose pyrotechnics of his golden phase behind, as his portraits increasingly featured delicate floral motifs drawn from Chinese and Japanese art. There is an impressionistic naturalism to his depiction of Fräulein Lieser, be she Hélène, Anna, or Margarethe, that is quite distinct from, for example, the (admittedly iconic) stylized representation of Adele Bloch-Bauer that resides in New York’s Neue Galerie. Here Fräulein Lieser calmly returns the viewer’s gaze, a slightly quizzical expression on her face, her head cocked ever so slightly to the left, her milk-and-blood complexion standing out against the coral background. The Italian art historian Federico Zeri observed:

L’universo klimtiano si concentra sulla donna come idolo malsano e ossessivo e raccoglie la sfida al moralismo già lanciato da Schnitzler e Hofmannsthal, dalla misoginia di Weininger o dal motore erotico di Freud. Ecco allora corpi scomposti o riassorbiti in un decorativismo fortemente allusivo, ma nell’eterno divenire dell’essere umano anche l’ambiguo potere erotico della femme fatale cede allo spettro della morte.

The Klimtian universe focuses on women as an unhealthy and obsessive idol, and takes up the challenge to moralism already launched by Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal, by Weininger’s misogyny, or by Freud’s erotic engine. Here then are bodies decomposed or reabsorbed in a highly allusive decorativism, but in the eternal burgeoning of the human being, even the ambiguous erotic power of the femme fatale yields to the specter of death.

Another art historian, T.J. Clark, has argued that Klimt “has a place of honour” in the ranks of early twentieth century so-called “Kitschmeisters,” owing to his “pretend mystery and profundity, pretend eroticism and excess.” Yet none of that decadence, none of that ostentation, none of that excess of ornamentation, none of that unhealthy eroticism, is remotely present here. What we have is an exquisite portrait of the daughter of one of his patrons, and nothing more, yet like all great portraits it expertly conveys the sitter’s unique personality, and can instantaneously whisk us back to a particular place and time, in this case springtime in Vienna in the year 1917, just as Europe was in the process of attempting civilizational suicide, and the sophisticated artistic climate of the fin de siècle was undergoing radical, irreversible changes.

Klimt continues to capture the modern imagination, just as he did when he was the most sought-after portraitist and decorative painter of his day. In an era when Instagram is awash with duck-face portraits taken with selfie-sticks, and the best-selling interior paint color is Agreeable Gray (SW 7029), Klimt’s psychological insight and fondness for decorative motifs still stands out. The art movement he led, the Vienna Secession, famously declared:

Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit.

To every age its art. To every art its freedom. 

Today we live in an eternal present, a stuck culture, small-minded and beholden to post-modern pieties and “wokeish drivel.” The Vienna Secessionists were far more broad-minded. As the contemporary symbolist painter Roberto Rosenman put it, “from the onset, the Vienna Secession brought together Naturalists, Modernists, Impressionists and cross-pollinated among all disciplines forming a total work of art; a Gesamkunstwerk. In this respect, the Secession drew inspiration from William Morris and the English Arts and Crafts movement which sought to re-unite fine and applied arts.” The soaring sprit of Klimt and his fellow Secessionists is one sadly lacking in our age of deconstruction, dismantling, and plastic disposability. (READ MORE: The Stable Path: Two Years of Ukraine’s Fight for Survival)

Viewed one way, the last Klimt is simply a charming portrait, a captivating image of a young Viennese woman, the daughter of a prominent Jewish industrialist, in the first flower of her radiant youth. Viewed another way, the Portrait of Fräulein Lieser is a haunting artifact of a lost civilization, one most likely commissioned by Lilly Lieser, who managed to send her daughters to safety in England and the United States, but was herself deported from Vienna to Riga on January 11, 1942, and died there on December 3, 1943, although some accounts suggest she may have been murdered at Auschwitz. And viewed still another way, the likeness of Fräulein Lieser represents the last gasp of the Vienna Secession and Jugendstil, the dying breath of a world smothered by war, disease, and the relentless march of hyper-modernity. And, when it goes on the auction block, it will also symbolize the outrageous monetary (but not spiritual or aesthetic) valuation of classic works of art by our own society, which is constitutionally incapable of creating anything meaningful of its own, and where there is, to borrow Friedrich Nietzsche’s phrase, “Nichts als Vordergrund” — “nothing but foreground.”

Ödön von Horváth, an Austro-Hungarian playwright who trenchantly, and at times hilariously, chronicled the gradual dehumanization of his beloved civilization, once wrote: 

Lieber als Arzt wollt ich Lehrer werden. Lieber als kranke heilen, wollte ich gesunden etwas mitgeben, einen winzigen Stein für den Bau einer schönen Zukunft.

I would rather be a teacher than a doctor. Rather than healing the sick, I want to give something to the healthy, a tiny stone for building a beautiful future.

Gustav Klimt was not a perfect painter, and T.J. Clark has reason to detect a certain artificiality in his oeuvre, an over-reliance on surreal, ersatz eroticism and extravagant decorativism, a charge to which the painter himself would have readily pleaded guilt. But at his best — including the Portrait of Fräulein Lieser, alongside Lady with a Fan and other of his very last works — Klimt managed to provide posterity with those tiny stones from which we can recreate a beautiful past, and even build a beautiful future, if only we could see beyond the oppressively vulgar perspective imposed by our alleged civilization.