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Published: Feb 09, 2017 4 min read
portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I and II
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (left) and Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt.
Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday the art world was stunned by a report that Oprah Winfrey was, for ten years, the owner of Gustav Klimt’s second-most-famous portrait of the lady in gold, “Adele Bloch-Bauer II.”

According to Bloomberg, Winfrey reportedly bought the painting anonymously in 2006, when Christie’s sold it at auction for $87.9 million. Last year, according to a person with knowledge of the transaction, Winfrey sold the 54”x54” painting to a Chinese collector for $150 million – quite a profit.

Winfrey doesn't need the cash—she's worth an estimated $2.9 billion, according to Forbes. Yet her apparent purchase of this piece makes for an interesting insight into her tastes and personality.

Adele Bloch-Bauer was the Viennese wife of sugar baron Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer and the only woman whose portrait Klimt painted twice. The first portrait, “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907) is a masterpiece of gold leaf and smoldering longing. It became a symbol of turn-of-the-century Vienna and an icon of resistance in the face of destruction when it was revealed that the Nazis had stolen it from Adele’s bereaved husband and the Austrians refused to return it after World War II.

Thanks to the 2015 film The Woman in Gold (starring Helen Mirren) and journalist Anne-Marie O’Connor’s book The Lady in Gold, many people are familiar with the Bloch-Bauer’s niece Maria Altmann and her international struggle to recover the paintings for their rightful heirs. Altmann prevailed, and in 2006 both portraits were repatriated and auctioned at Christie’s.

Winfrey, America’s first black female media mogul, must have known the story of Adele's struggle and rise. A Jewish woman in Vienna, Adele was subject to scorn for her gender and religion. Like Winfrey, Adele was an outsider who pushed against limitations to become a respected thought leader. Both women had to contend with prejudice, gossip and resistance. Both prevailed.

Bloch-Bauer’s society wanted to keep women uneducated, at home and in the background. Adele became an art patron, salon leader, and taste-maker, instead. This, too, is echoed in Winfrey’s life, with her television show - a salon writ-large on the screen, one that gave a new and authentic voice to America’s women.

In life, Adele did not much care for this second portrait—the one Winfrey reportedly owned. Putting the first and second portraits of Adele side by side, it’s easy to see why. Where she is gold, glamour and intrigue in the first portrait, she is stiff and drained of any element of sensual desire in the second. She's not conventionally beautiful in the second, but seems determined and fearless. She looks like a woman who has wrestled with demons and is proud to still be standing - even in the face of a series of miscarriages, the fading of the Empire and the rise of ever bolder anti-Semitism in Vienna.

Winfrey, born into poverty in rural Mississippi, had one son who died in infancy. Adele also had one son, who also died in infancy. Both women used their wealth to support social causes, especially those directed toward women and children. Adele championed Vienna’s first hospital for unwed mothers and when she died in 1925, a portion of her estate was left to a children’s hospital in Vienna. Winfrey formed the The Angel Network in 1998 and over the years has donated millions to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa.

Adele may not have liked this painting, but Oprah knew its true value.

Laurie Lico Albanese is the author of Stolen Beauty, a novel about Adele Bloch-Bauer, Gustav Klimt, and Maria Atlmann. It's out now on Atria Books.