Hitler’s Art Thief

Do you remember hhitler's art thiefearing about the 2012 raid on the small Munich apartment that uncovered over 1,200 works of Nazi-era looted art? In this book, Hitler’s Art ThiefSusan Ronald tells the whole unbelievable story of the men behind the stash: Cornelius Gurlitt, the 80-something owner of the apartment, and his father Hildebrand Gurlitt, a Nazi-era German dealer of modern art.

This book is perfect for fans of the Monuments Men who wish for a deeper understanding of exactly how Nazi looting took place and why restitution remains so difficult. In particular, this book tries to explain what happened to the “Degenerate Art” which Hitler didn’t want, but was happy to profit from. It is a disturbing story with Hildebrand Gurlitt in the deep dark center, playing off both sides at once.

A photograph of some the Gurlitt Collection supplied by the German prosecutor's office to help identify potential claimants

A photograph of some the Gurlitt Collection supplied by the German prosecutor’s office to help identify potential claimants. For more information go to http://www.lostart.de.


But let’s fast forward to the present for an update to the latest news about the Gurlitt stash. You might have heard that when Cornelius Gurlitt passed away in May, 2014, his will donated the entire “Gurlitt Collection” to the Kunst Museum of Bern, Switzerland. Interesting that Gurlitt did not choose a German museum, isn’t it? Before his death, Gurlitt had lawyered up and was fighting the German government, objecting to their warrantless search and seizure and demands for restitution. The Kunst Museum of Bern played hot potato, denying any prior relation with Gurlitt and hiring lawyers of its own. It took several months before the museum finally agreed to accept only those paintings that had not been looted. The looted art would remain in Germany pending a lost art claims procedure.

Kunst Museum, Bern Switzerland

Kunst Museum, Bern Switzerland

Since then, a further wrinkle has developed. Although Cornelius Gurlitt never married and had no children, there are two surviving cousins – Uta Werner and her brother Dietrich  Gurlitt – who have filed a legal challenge to the will. The Kunst Museum has said the donation is on hold pending the outcome of the matter in German probate court. As of October, 2015, the appellate court is considering a report by an independent psychologist regarding Gurlitt’s mental capacity to execute the will.

Either way the court decides, it appears that looted art in the Gurlitt collection will be available for restitution. Both the heirs and the museum have agreed to cooperate with efforts to locate the proper owners of the looted art.

The problem is, how do you know what’s looted if there aren’t good records? If the records are themselves fraudulent, missing or destroyed? And most tragically, when the original owners were murdered and the heirs don’t know or can’t prove what paintings are rightfully theirs?

In many cases, Hildebrant Gurlitt bartered and traded “degenerate art” for traditional art designated for Hitler’s Fühermuseum in Linz, Austria, but sometimes he just sold it on his own account for his own personal profit, making it all more difficult to track. Sometimes Gurlitt just held onto it and hung it on his own walls.

After the war, Gurlitt tried to sell some of the art for personal profit, but found it more and more difficult to explain their provenance or to find a way to launder them. So when Hildebrandt died in 1958, his son inherited the stash. Apparently, Cornelius couldn’t figure out how to sell it off either. And so it sat until 2012.

Out of the 1,407 pieces of artwork discovered in the Munich apartment, and another 60-plus in two different homes that Cornelius Gurlitt owned in Salzburg, Austria, there are about 970 artworks under provenance investigation. According to the Lost Art Internet Database, the Task Force has categorized about 380 of them as “degenerate art,” which were for the most part confiscated from public collections and museums. The Task Force is investigating another 590 works for evidence of Nazi-era looting.

Although this Task Force was formed in 2013, only four pieces of art in the Gurlitt Collection have been identified as looted and only two have been returned to their lawful owners. One of these is Max Liebermann’s Two Riders on the Beach (1901).

Max Liebermann, Two Riders on a Beach (1901), sold by the heirs of David Friedmann in June, 2015 for approximately $2.8 million at a Sotheby's auction in London.

Max Liebermann, Two Riders on a Beach (1901), part of the “Gurlitt Art Trove.” The Gurlitt Estate Task Force  returned this painting to the heirs of its original owner, a Jewish art collector in Germany. The heirs sold it in in June, 2015 for approximately $2.8 million at a Sotheby’s auction in London.

When the news broke about the Gurlitt treasure trove, a 90 year-old New York attorney named David Toren recognized Two Riders on a Beach from his childhood. He could recall seeing it at his uncle’s estate in Germany just before the war. Although most of Toren’s relatives died in the holocaust, Toren survived because he had been sent on a Kindetransport to Sweden in 1939. Torn submitted a claim the Gurlitt Task Force but encountered so many delays that he filed suit in 2014.

In May, 2015, the Task Force finally agreed to grant Toren’s demand for restitution. They confirmed that the Nazis had forced the sale of Toren’s uncle’s German estate (along with Two Riders on a Beach which hung inside) to a Nazi General who planned to use the lodge as his retreat during the upcoming invasion of Poland. The painting would have been considered “degenerate art” and thus ended up in the hands of the modern art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt. Gurlitt was supposed to find a buyer and to sell it on behalf of the Third Reich, but ended up keeping it for the rest of his life.

To learn even more behind the true story of this and the hundreds of Gurlitt’s other stolen works of art, you’ll have to read the book in its entirety. It’s a fascinating book, but sadly, the story is not nearly over. It is likely there is even more of Gurlitt’s looted art collection stashed away in secret places.

For further reading on the subject of Nazi looted art:

American Girls Art Club in Paris and Beyond: The Lady in Gold in Vienna

American Girls Art Club in Paris and Beyond: The Hare with Amber Eyes in Vienna

American Girls Art Club in Paris and Beyond: Art, Books, Paris, The Hare with Amber Eyes

American Girls Art Club in Paris and Beyond: Pictures at an Exhibition: Art, War and Memory in Paris

Little Woman in Blue: The Story of May Alcott Nieriker

I just finished Little Woman in Blue by Jeannine Atkins, the fictionalized life story of Louisa May Alcott’s sister May Alcott Nieriker. Fans of Little Women will remember the artistic little sister Amy from Little Women, but in this book the real May gets her own voice and tells her own true and timeless story.

little woman in blue

In Little Women, Amy gives up art in favor of a marriage to the wealthy neighbor Laurie, spending the rest of her life as a genteel society woman and devoted mother.

In Little Woman in Blue, Atkins reveals that the real May did no such thing; in fact, May was ahead of her time in her desire to “have it all.” But she met criticism from both sides. Her parents said they “didn’t raise our daughters to earn a living” and believed that “motherhood is woman’s highest calling.”

But it was the criticism and advice from her own sister that May struggled with the most. Louisa May, who attained literary success but never married, didn’t seem to take May seriously. Louisa May often discouraged May’s pursuits, criticizing May’s artwork quite publicly. On the other hand, Louisa May did pay for May’s art studies in Paris. Oh my goodness, what a complicated relationship those sisters had.

Even Mary Cassatt, who May befriends during her years in Paris, says “. . . women must choose. We can be artists or mothers.” Cassatt was known to be highly critical of amateur women artists who didn’t do serious work. “It’s best to be thankful to miss the danger of childbirth, then the diapers, the scuffles, and the noise,” she warns.

The scenes with May Alcott and Mary Cassatt were some of my favorite passages of the book. In what must have been the spring of 1878, they go on a stroll to watch deliverymen carrying paintings into the jury for the Paris Salon (the same jury that would accept May’s still life but reject two of Cassatt’s). Later, May visits Mary Cassatt’s studio to find her finishing up “a sulky girl in a lacy dress sprawled on a big blue chair,” no doubt referring to one of my favorite Cassatts: Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Finally, Cassatt invites May to view the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition of 1879 in which Cassatt made her impressionist debut.

May refuses to be discouraged by Cassatt’s professional advice, and instead takes her inspiration from Berthe Morisot, who by that time had married Eugène Manet, given birth to their daughter Julie, and still kept painting. As Mary Cassatt said to May: “She has a strong will and a bonne to help with the child.” (Ah yes, the key to every working woman’s success.)

If you don’t know the rest of May’s story I won’t spoil it here. It’s a timeless story about persistence, hope, imagination and regret. I highly recommend that you read the whole book for yourself. In the meantime, you might enjoy reading the interview I had with the author Jeannine Atkins, in which we discuss women, art and the story of May Alcott Nieriker.

Q: In your book, Louisa May Alcott was a difficult woman. Although you softened her a bit, Mary Cassatt was known to be quite difficult as well. So it made me wonder, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Were these women successful because they were tough and uncompromising, or were they difficult because of the unusual challenges they faced as ambitious, talented women of that era? Is “difficult” a gendered judgment in a world where mothers say “we didn’t bring up our girls to earn a living”?

A: What great questions. I’m sorry the only honest answer is that I don’t know, but perhaps that’s where complicated questions lead. And I’m happy to speculate, which novelists get to do! Journals and memoirs suggest that Louisa was often carefree in her youth, despite the family’s hardships. Louisa notes a change in herself after the Civil War, when she was given calomel to treat the typhoid fever she caught as a nurse, and which we now know gave her mercury poisoning. Some of what we might call “difficulty” certainly came from physical pain.

I think May saw a bit of her sister in Mary Cassatt, in that uncompromising drive toward art, and the way she chose a life without the comforts and compromises of a sustained romance or partnership. Mary Cassatt seemed to show a softer side in her relationship to her sister and women friends, and her paintings celebrate such tenderness, but was also driven as both an artist and businesswoman, promoting both her own work and that of other Impressionists. Both Louisa Alcott and Mary Cassatt became wealthy due to their own efforts, and I hope they felt some quiet satisfaction in that.

Re your last question, I think that even today we tend to be harsher on uncompromising women than we are on men. I can think of some pretty harsh language that is reserved for women who persevere at work.

Q: I was shocked at the unflattering preface that Louisa wrote in May’s Concord Sketches book and I assume it’s true. I’ve seen some of May’s artwork and I would agree that her talent at times appears undeveloped. To call her a student was probably fair, unless of course, you’re family and you should know it’s better to be kind than right. Why you think Louisa wrote it the way she did? Of course, I don’t have a sister, so maybe that understanding will evade me. 

A: I was floored when I opened Concord Sketches and saw the work within described in the preface as valuable for its subject matter, though not its execution. It’s one thing to critique verbally, and another to put it in print. Also, I can’t fathom what the publisher was thinking: how could this possibly help sell a book?

Louisa was enormously critical of her own work. She enjoyed writing Gothic or lurid tales, but those who’ve read Little Women know she felt embarrassed by her interest in such, which Jo March’s beau chastised. Louisa had nothing good to say about Little Women, which would become almost instantly a bestseller and has never gone out of print. So being critical was her way of being, and she saw it as part of her role as a sister who was eight years older than May. Louisa left home to work at sixteen, when May was still a child. Some sisters can find it hard to see their grown siblings as they are, and Louisa came down hard on May, until it was rather too late.

Q: How much fact vs. fiction is involved in your story about May’s Boston art lessons with William Rimmer? I loved the tough advice you had him give to May, and it seems clear that she would have benefitted from additional instruction at that level. Was Rimmer known to have been inappropriate with women students, or was that a creative inspiration? I loved the way you had May blame and punish herself for the incident in the hall.

A: There are records of some of William Rimmer’s lessons and even guidebooks to the teaching artists of the time that would be considered libelous in ours. He had a bit of a reputation. I did make up the incident in his class but it seemed plausible to me. In classes today, there’s certainly still abuse of sexual power from instructors, and I know of young women who stopped taking classes or even making art in reaction to remarks made by professors. I hardly think such is new, or the self-blaming that often happens, and wanted to show that as one of the things that impeded May and other women from getting the sort of instruction they needed and deserved.

Q: How did you do the research for the Paris chapters in the book? Did you get to go to Paris, or did you have to rely on research and imagination? What sites in Paris would be on your dream literary tour for your book?

A: I did go to Paris, but also loved combing through old guidebooks (it’s great to live near university libraries!). Enough Americans were in Paris then that I also found details in the letters of Henry James, John Singer Sargent, and others, including May Alcott’s charming small book that she wrote with a primarily female audience in mind: How to Study Abroad and Do it Cheaply. She scolded Paris teachers for charging women often three times what they charged men and encouraged women to resist. (She also mentioned the best shops not only for paints but for hats and stockings: buy your shoes in England, but gloves in Paris).

 This book is now available as a reprint online. I was also delighted to visit Dinan on your blog. My dream tour would be to visit May’s home in Meudon, where Rodin also had a studio.

Q: Where can we find images of May’s artwork online or in person? I’ve seen some of her work but I’d love to see more. I don’t think I’ve ever seen images of her two pieces that were accepted into the Paris Salon.

A: As you inferred earlier, May’s art showed talent, but didn’t reach the heights where we’d expect it to be in museums. It’s the sort of art that a proud family might put on walls, which the Alcotts did, and because of her sister’s fame, it was saved rather than possibly being stored in attics or forgotten. At Orchard House in Concord, MA, which is open to the public, you can see some of May’s work. Drawings of gods and goddesses are on her bedroom walls, as well as her portrait of an owl and a flower panel in Louisa’s bedroom. Around the house are her watercolors of landscapes, copies of Turner, and a copy of La Negresse and the still life with a stuffed owl displayed in the Paris Salon.

Q: I think you’re on to something here. Any chance you’re thinking about writing about another woman artist? I’d love to read a novel about Berthe Morisot, Celia Beaux, Rosa Bonheur, Mary MacMonnies or the Emmets. I hear there’s a novel about Georgia O’Keefe coming out soon. Any other women artists on your dream list? 

A: So many dreams, so little time. I’m not so drawn to write about someone like Georgia O’Keefe who left quite a bit of biographical information (and fabulous letters). I start in the margins. It was the brief allusions to May Alcott in biographies that pulled me in to use imagination to flesh out what wasn’t known. And I wrote Stone Mirrors: A Life in Verse of Sculptor Edmonia Lewis which is coming out from Atheneum/Simon and Schuster in spring 2017. We have some amazing facts about how Edmonia Lewis became the first person of color to gain an international reputation as a sculptor, but there were also lots of intriguing missing pieces. And a new woman with a role in the arts is taking shape at my computer, but she must stay secret until more fully formed.

Thanks so much for the excellent questions!


Orchard House http://www.louisamayalcott.org/




For Further Reading:


Little Women in Dinan, France: American Girls Art Club in Paris, a photography tour of Dinan, France in the steps of Louisa May Alcott and her sister May

Berthe Morisot’s Interior: American Girls Art Club in Paris, photos and discussion of Berthe Morisot’s Julie Playing a Violin (1893)

Where the Light Falls: An American Artist in Paris, American Girls Art Club in Paris, a book review and tour of the sights where an American artist studied in Paris in the same era as May Alcott Nieriker.

A list of Alcott sources from Jeannine Atkins: http://www.jeannineatkins.com/books/Alcott_sources.htm



Travels in Vermeer by Michael White

I’d never even heard of this slim little book, Travels in Vermeer by Michael White, until the National Book Award Longlist for 2015 was released a few weeks ago. I suspected I would enjoy an art-themed travel memoir in the words of a poet, so I ordered it right away. And oh my goodness. What a revelation. I feel like I found an soulmate in art and travel.

travels in vermeer



This book is indeed “an enchanting book about the transformative power of art” (Kirkus Reviews). We join Creative Writing Professor Michael White on his year-long quest for peace, sobriety and healing following the death of his first wife and his divorce from his second. He’s a wreck, barely hanging on, but he’s soothed and inspired by the sight of Vermeer’s The Milkmaid at the Rijksmuseum.



Johannes Vermeer, The MIlkmaid

Johannes Vermeer, The Milkmaid (c. 1658-1661), oil on canvas, The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Just study this painting, as Michael White did at the beginning of his book. The milk — the nail on the wall — the Delft tiles — the seeds on the bread — the dirty chipped walls — the ultramarine blue apron — the beautiful foreshortened arm grasping the handle of the pitcher. And what is that object in the lower right corner? A space heater/foot warmer, commonly understood to represent lust in Dutch genre paintings. (What? Whoa, this painting just got way more complicated.) I have seen this painting in person myself, and it’s true, it’s mesmerizing.

Michael White’s quest begins here, in front of The Milkmaid, when his scalp begins to tingle. “Why do I feel this sweet sensation of joy?” he asks, quoting from Elizabeth Bishop’s poem The Moose, which after describing the sight of a moose in the middle of a country road, also wonders:

Why, why do we feel

(we all feel) this sweet

sensation of joy?

White knows he must pursue this question, that his redemption and recovery might depend on it. Pouring over a Vermeer catalog on a park bench near the Rijksmuseum (that’s another thing deserving of wonder: the joys to be discovered in museum bookshops) White learns there are only 35 Vermeers in the world in only a handful of museums. He comes up with an itinerary that will take him from the Mauritshuis at the Hague, to the National Gallery in D.C., the Frick and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Kenwood House, Buckingham Palace and the National Gallery in London.

The only thing missing from this book is illustration. I get it, this isn’t a $75 art book for the coffee table, but I’m already picturing an expanded illustrated edition à la The Hare with Amber Eyes. A girl can dream. Maybe if it wins the National Book Award?

As it is, I had to be happy with Google and my iPhone. Each time White came to a new painting, I had to call it up and look along in order to fully appreciate the text. So I armchair-traveled along with White and studied these public domain/fair use images:

Johannes Vermeer, The Girl With a Pearl Earring (c. 1665), The Mauritius, The Hague

Johannes Vermeer, The Girl With a Pearl Earring (c. 1665), oil on canvas, The Mauritshuis, The Hague

Johanes Vermeer, The Art of Painting (16xx), oil on canvas, The Mauritshuis, The Hague

Johanes Vermeer, The Art of Painting (c. 1662-1668), oil on canvas, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Luckily for White, this painting was on loan to the Mauritshuis in the Hague at the time of his visit, saving him a separate trip to Vienna.

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delt (16xx), oil on canvas, The Mauritshuis, The Hague

Johannes Vermeer, View of Delft (c. 1660-1661), oil on canvas, The Mauritshuis, The Hague

Johannes Vermeer , Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664), oil on canvas, Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Johannes Vermeer , Woman Holding a Balance (c. 1664), oil on canvas, Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Johannes Vermeer , Girl with the Red Hat (c. 1665/1666), oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C.

Johannes Vermeer, Girl with the Red Hat (c. 1665/1666), oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. As White points out in the book, this is a very small painting, only about 7 x 9 inches. And yet. Look at the chair — the scarf — the hat — and to me, the best of all, the highlight on her lip and her nose.

Johannes Vermeer, Officer with Laughing Girl (c. 1657), oil on canvas, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, The Frick Collection, New York

Johannes Vermeer, Officer with Laughing Girl (c. 1657), oil on canvas, Henry Clay Frick Bequest, The Frick Collection, New York. In the book, White tells us that his breath caught in his throat when he saw this painting: “The feeling isn’t Here is art, but Here is life.”


Johannes Vermeer, Girl Interrupted in Her Music (c. 1658-61), oil on canvas, Frick Collection, New York

Johannes Vermeer, Girl Interrupted in Her Music (c. 1658-61), oil on canvas, Frick Collection, New York. White points out how poorly this painting has been preserved, something we would never know by looking at a digital image. (Right there, it makes me want to run to the Frick to see for myself.)

After the Frick, Michael White visits the five Vermeers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and finally, he flies off to the last stop on his itinerary, London. Before that, though, White retreats into a contemplation of his two marriages, his battle for sobriety, his almost crushing love for his young daughter and his search for new love after divorce. He is in the perfectly vulnerable place to figure out just what Vermeer and his women are meant to teach him.

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson (1662-1664), oil on canvas, The Royal Collection, England

Johannes Vermeer, The Music Lesson (c. 1662-1664), oil on canvas, The Royal Collection, England


Johannes Vermeer, Lady Standing at a Virginal (c. 1670-1673), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

Johannes Vermeer, A Lady Standing at a Virginal (c. 1670-1673), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (c. 1670-1672), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

Johannes Vermeer, A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal (c. 1670-1672), oil on canvas, National Gallery, London


Back to the essential question: Why? Why do we love to study these paintings? And what can this do for us, aside from offering momentary pleasure or joy? What is the point? White comes to his realizations (his “aha” if you will) toward the end of the book, weaving his memories and his losses into his obsession for Vermeer. There are paragraphs toward the end that were so lovely they took my breath away.

Here’s a small taste:

When Sophia was still an infant, I remember the inexhaustible wonder in her gaze. She’d stare so seekingly into my eyes for hours – first one eye, then the other eye, and then doze off before beginning again. . . . In those first months, the child is on a mission, it seems, to memorize the face of love. How astonishing to see and be seen, to be truly seen for the first time.

. . .

What if a painter painted virtually nothing but such moments? . . .


He goes on, but it’s too beautiful for me to repeat it here. I swear, it gave me goosebumps. All of a sudden, my love of art and travel and literature, my dedication to this silly little blog, it all makes sense. I want (we all want) that “sweet sensation of joy”  that such moments bring. I am seeking (we all are seeking) to know the world, to know and be known by our loved ones. And that is what art does.

As White said, “the feeling isn’t Here is art, but Here is life.”

I think you should read this memoir for yourself, you might just have “a moment” of your own. Because writing this good is as artful as a painting.


For Further Reading:

Jonathan Jansen’s Essential Vermeer, http://www.essentialvermeer.com

Katherine Weber’s novel The Music Lesson

Even if you’ve read Tracy Chevalier’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, you should check out her website, which will remind you how creatively she wove a number of Vermeer’s paintings into the narrative. It might make you want to read it all over again.



John Singer Sargent and the Vanderbilts

It seems that everywhere I go, I bump into John Singer Sargent.

During my travels this summer, by way of a fortunate upgrade, I checked into the John Singer Sargent suite at the Inn on the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. I planned to tour the Vanderbilt Estate the next day.

The view from the Sargent Suite at the Inn on Biltmore Estate.

The view from the Sargent Suite at the Inn on Biltmore Estate. The Estate itself is perched on a distant hill to the left of this frame.


Apparently, George Vanderbilt was America’s biggest patron of John Singer Sargent. I had no idea. But it makes sense. Sargent was an expert at cultivating the kind of wealthy friends and contacts who could afford an expensive commissioned portrait.

Just out of curiosity, I tried to research how much a Sargent portrait commission would have cost in the late 1880s and 1890s, the height of his portrait career. I read somewhere that Sargent was charging $100,000 per commission at that time, but it was not a reliable primary source. And would that be present value? (If you know, please comment below.)

In any event, Vanderbilt could obviously afford whatever Sargent was charging. He commissioned not one but several portraits of family and friends. And now I was going to get to see them all in their original setting. A mansion in the middle of the spectacular hills and mountains of North Carolina.

A framed page of information in my “Sargent Suite” told me which Sargent paintings I would be able to see in the Biltmore Estate and in exactly which rooms.

The framed information in the John Singer Sargent Suite at the Inn on Biltmore Estate

The framed information in the John Singer Sargent Suite at the Inn on Biltmore Estate


The extravagance and luxury of the Biltmore Estate is so over-the-top that you can easily become numb and cynical. I mean, check out these photos — an American Downton Abbey, if not more so:

IMG_0804 unnamed unnamed-1 unnamed-2

The Estate can seem like a museum, a castle, an impossibility in America, but the portraits of the Vanderbilt family made it seem as if real people actually lived there. Really rich people, but still. I spent more time during my tour of the Biltmore Estate in front of the Sargent paintings than I did in any other room.

Photographs are not permitted inside the Biltmore Estate, but here are public domain images of the paintings I saw.

John Singer Sargent, George W. Vanderbilt

John Singer Sargent, George W. Vanderbilt (1890) , oil on canvas, The Tapestry Room in The Biltmore House, Asheville, North Carolina. What a surprising portrait. I love the shockingly bright red pages of the book, a color that would only be repeated, more muted,  in the lips and in the shadows above the eyelids. I see a pale young intellectual with well-groomed fingernails, certainly not an alpha-male captain of industry. In fact, George was the grandson of the shipping baron Cornelius Vanderbilt, and never did care for the family business. He preferred the arts, philanthropy and designing the Biltmore Estate. He did not marry until he was 40 years old, eight years after the date of this portrait. There were and still are rumors he was gay, despite the fact that he married and fathered one daughter, Cornelia.



JSS MrsVanderbiltSr

John Singer Sargent, Mrs William Henry Vanderbilt (1888), the Tapestry Room of the Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina. This is George’s imposing mother, Maria Louisa Kissam, painted before George started building the Biltmore.


John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Walter Bacon,

John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Walter Rathbone Bacon (1896), the Oak Room at the Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina. Virginia Purdy Bacon was George’s cousin on his mother’s side, the youngest granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt. She and her husband were some of George Vanderbilt’s closest friends. She looks like fun.  She was raised in Bordeaux and married an American railroad tycoon, after which she divided her time between Bordeaux, Scotland and New York City. She became a philanthropist and art dealer, but is perhaps best known for sitting for both John Singer Sargent and Anders Zorn. The two artists had a contest to see who could capture her the best, and Sargent admitted that Zorn had won. The Zorn portrait is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (check it out here).







John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Benjamin Kissam (1888), oil on canvas, the Oak Room at the Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina

John Singer Sargent, Mrs. Benjamin Kissam (1888), oil on canvas, the Oak Room at the Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina. Mrs. Kissam was George’s aunt on his mother’s side. It’s fun to compare the portraits of the aunt and the mother to  the portraits of George and his cousin Virginia. You can sense the progress of time within one generation of Vanderbilts.

George Vanderbilt also commissioned the portraits of Biltmore’s architect and landscape designer, Frederick Law Olmsted and Richard Morris Hunt. Their portraits hang prestigiously in the Second Floor Hall of Biltmore Estate.

John Singer Sargent, Richard Morris Hunt (1895), the Second Floor Hallway of the Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina.

John Singer Sargent, Richard Morris Hunt (1895), the Second Floor Living Hall of the Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina.

John Singer Sargent, Frederick Law Olmsted (189 ), oil on canvas, Second Floor Hallway of the Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolinia

John Singer Sargent, Frederick Law Olmsted (1895), oil on canvas, Second Floor Living Hall of the Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina.

To my own surprise, the  portrait that fascinated me the most was not even a John Singer Sargent. It was a Boldini. Giovani Boldini can sometimes be a little too over-the-top for me, but this one of George Vanderbilt’s young wife Edith seemed just right. She must have had a lot of flair.

Edith Stuyvesant Dresser married George Vanderbilt in Paris in 1898. They were only married 16 years; George would die of a heart attack in 1914 at the age of 51. Their daughter was only 14 years old at the time of his death. Cornelia would get married in an elaborate wedding at the Biltmore in 1924.

Giovani Boldini, Mrs. George Vanderbilt (1911), oil on canvas, the Tapestry Gallery of the Biltmore Estate, Asheville, North Carolina.  Wow, what a portrait. The brushwork is dazzling. I’ll bet Edith loved it.
























Resources and for further reading:

John Singer Sargent Gallery, George W. Vanderbilt’s Biltmore at JSSgallery.org

The Biltmore Blog: A Fashionable Lady, Corneilia Vanderbilt’s Wedding

Interested in Boldini? Here’s a prior post about his portrait of Madame de Florian and the novel The Paris Apartment by Michelle Gable

Interested in more about John Singer Sargent? Check out this post about John Singer Sargent and Madame X in Paris.




The Painter at the Fountain: Jane Emmet de Glen


John Singer Sargent, The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy, 1907. Art Institute of Chicago, oil on canvas 71.4 x 56.5 cm (28 1/8 x 22 1/4 in.) Signed, lower left: "John S. Sargent" Friends of American Art Collection, 1914.57

John Singer Sargent, The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy, 1907. Art Institute of Chicago, oil on canvas

I’m a little obsessed with this painting of the woman at the fountain.

It started with my painting teacher. He was trying to find a way to help me loosen up with my oil painting. My teacher said, “I’m giving you homework. I want you to copy a John Singer Sargent landscape this summer.” So I did. At least I tried.

I don’t know what I was possibly thinking but I decided to see what I could learn from The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati, Italy (1907), Art Institute of Chicago. It had been a favorite painting of mine for decades. I loved the idea that Sargent painted a turn-of-the-century woman artist in such a complimentary way.

I’ve often visited this painting in the Art Institute of Chicago, but this summer it has been on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of New York’s exhibit called Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends. Running through October 4, 2015, this exhibit is an absolute must-see for fans of John Singer Sargent.

I happened to be in New York this August and had a whole day to spend on my own. I had to go to see my old friend in New York. It was like running into an acquaintance on a vacation: “fancy meeting you here!”

Poster, Metropolitan Museum of New York, John Singer Sargent Exhibit (2015)

Poster, Metropolitan Museum of New York, John Singer Sargent Exhibit (2015)

I returned home to my art studio and my canvas-in-progress even more inspired to paint like Sargent.

Margie White, Copy of Sargent's The Fountain (2015)

My in-progress copy of Sargent’s The Fountain (2015). It’s very humbling posting this copy up near the original, making my errors and omissions blatantly obvious. But the point was to learn how to paint like Sargent, not to make an art forgery. I beg of you, don’t even look at the guy’s head.



So what did I learn from this exercise?

Well, first of all, to be bold, but not too bold. Leave a little to mystery. You don’t have to define every detail. Second, I learned how much fun it can be to glob on the paint. Really glob it on. And if there’s joy in the doing, there’s joy in the viewing. Finally, I learned a very humbling lesson on what a genius Sargent was.

As I painted my mind wondered is what The Fountain says about these artists as friends. It was 1907. Who were they and what does this pose tell us about them? She, tall, confident, looking over the man’s head, concentrating on her subject, refusing to be distracted. He, relaxed, scrutinizing the painting in progress. Is he pleased? Is he critical? It’s hard to tell. And Sargent, studying them both. The woman in the middle.

Sargent’s subjects in this painting were his friends and fellow artists Jane and Wilfred de Glehn. Wilfred de Glehn (1870-1951) was a British landscape painter who had studied in London and at L’Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He was 37 years old at the time of this painting.

Jane Erin Emmet de Glehn (1873-1961) was 34 years old, and had been married just 3 years, no children. (It turned out she never did have children.) She was a member of the prestigious Emmet family of New Rochelle, New York, the youngest of ten siblings. Jane’s great-grandfather Thomas Addis Emmet was the Attorney General of New York and one of the top lawyers admitted to appear in from of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Jane came from a long line of successful women artists. Her mother, Julia Colt Pierson Emmet (1829-1908) was an artist and noted illustrator. Jane’s older sisters, Rosina Emmet Sherwood (1854-1948) and Lydia Field Emmet (1866-1952) were both successful painters and illustrators, as well as her cousin Ellen (“Bay”) Emmet Rand (1876-1941) from San Francisco. The Emmets were also distant cousins of Henry James and Edith Wharton. Success, talent and privilege ran freely through the Emmet blood.

Jane Emmet began studying art at a young age, following in the footsteps of her older sisters. Rosina and Lydia Emmet had studied at the Académie Julian in Paris for six months in 1884-85, after which they returned to New York to live and work as professional artists. Rosina married in 1887, had five children, and for two decades gave up most of her professional painting projects in favor of informal family portraits. Lydia continued her studies at the Art Students League, studying with such names as William Merritt Chase and Kenyon Cox. Both Rosina and Lydia were actively involved in Chase’s Shinnecock Summer School of Art from 1891-1893, and both of them were commissioned for major works in the Woman’s Building of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

Jane’s older sisters helped Jane make incredible contacts in the New York art world. Jane got to meet John Singer Sargent in 1890, when she was just 17 years old. Sargent had arranged for the Spanish gypsy dancer La Carmencita to give a private performance and pose for a portrait at Chase’s 10th Street studio. The Emmet sisters were invited, along with a elite group in the New York art world, including William Merritt Chase, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Augustus Saint Gaudens and James Carroll Beckwith. Jane was lucky to be rubbing some pretty legendary elbows at such a young age.

In 1897, Jane followed in the path of her older sisters and went off to Paris to study art. Rosina and Lydia Emmet had been underwhelmed with the quality of instruction they’d received at the Académie Julian in the mid-1880s, so it could have been at their urging that Jane and Bay instead sought to study with the famous sculptor Frederick MacMonnies.

MacMonnies was a renowned American artist who had been living and sculpting in Paris since he arrived to study at L’´Ecole de Beaux Arts in the mid-1880s. (See my post “Musée Bourdelle and its American Connection” about MacMonnies’ studio at 16 Impasse du Maine in Paris.) By the mid-90s, fresh off the heels of his success with a giant commission for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893,  MacMonnies had began to offer drawing instruction to some of his sculpting protégés such as Janet Scudder. His classes soon became popular with American female painters as well. By 1897, the word was out and the Emmet women wanted in.

Jane and Bay Emmet arrived in Paris in February, 1897 and found “a fine apartment [in Montparnasse], a cut above the lifestyle of most art students, and access to the inner circle of artists and architects.” (An Interlude in Giverny at 67, see below.) Bay was the first of the Emmet women to be invited to join MacMonnies’ Paris class at Académie Vitti, apparently because she had recently met and impressed John Singer Sargent in London, and had arrived in Paris with his hearty recommendation.

Jane Emmet had to settle for painting classes under Raphael Collin at Académie Colarossi at 10 rue de la Grande-Chaumière in Montparnasse, but kept her eye on Bay’s progress with MacMonnies, hoping for the opportunity to join his class.

In May, 1897, Bay was invited to join MacMonnies at his summer studio in Giverny. MacMonnies and his wife, fellow artist Mary Fairchild MacMonnies Low (an American from St. Louis) had began spending their summers is Giverny, well-known both then as now as the home of Claude Monet. The MacMonnies welcomed Jane and Bay Emmet, as well as other young American artists to Villa Bêche, their summer rental in Giverny. Bay returned to Paris in the fall of 1897 and went on to have a stunning career as an American portrait artist. Jane returned to New York, her talent failing to attract the same attention Bay’s or her older sisters.

In the meantime, Wilfred de Glehn left London in 1891 to study painting in Paris at L’´Ecole de Beaux Arts. While still a student, he was hired  to assist John Singer Sargent and Edwin Austin Abbey on their mural commission for the Boston Public Library. Sargent and de Glehn became lifelong friends. Mutual friends said that they both had the same kind of “cosmopolitan attitude.” De Glehn became a part of Sargent’s inner circle.

Sargent, Abbey and de Glehn did all of the work for the Boston murals in England but traveled to Boston frequently to meet with the architects or to supervise the installation of new panels. In 1903, they traveled to Boston to celebrate the installation of one of Sargent’s murals, Dogma of the Redemption.

It is widely believed that Jane Emmet met Wilfred at the Boston Library installation in January, 1903. Others believe it is possible that Jane and Wilfred met during Jane’s trip to London in 1902. In any event, Jane and Wilfred were engaged by the fall of 1903 and married in 1904.

Wilfrid and Jane’s engagement initially caused tension between Wilfred and Sargent. Sargent may have feared Wilfred would be moving to America. This letter from Sargent to Wilfred (whom he calls “Premp,”) is playful and witty, but also reveals a real sense of shock and apprehension at the news:

My Dear Premp,

I have just opened a packet of letters and find your, let us say, communication.


My God! what a trick to play to your sincere well wisher. I will up and marry in the attempt to be quits.


Well, troglodyte of the Cordilleras. I foresee that the time will come when, this first shock being over, I will spontaneously and sincerely congratulate you – especially when I see and like the lady which I feel I am sure to do – and the sooner the better – at this moment the cold sweat is on my brow. I feel as if a very boon companion has been carried off, probably for his good, but also probably to live in America which means to me personally a great loss. However and whereas and nevertheless.


These small and discreditable and ill-mannered whisperings must be stifled, and I will train for better sentiments by reading your letter which is very convincing that you are happy and likely to be permanently so.

All that your fussy and egotistical of friends will want to hang to, is the chance or the power of contributing a little to your happiness.


Be as happy as you like Dear Sir, on those conditions.

Don’t be a troglodyte and show this to her and spoil my chance of becoming her friend as well as yours. You may tell her that is my hope and ambition and that I shall be extremely annoyed if she doesn’t like me.


Yours ever,



Is it just me, or does anyone else get a Brokeback Mountain “I wish I knew how to quit you” vibe from this letter? The fact is, no one really knows for sure about Sargent’s sexual orientation, although there are many who insist that he was indeed a closeted gay man. After Sargent’s death, French artist Jacques-Émile Blanche claimed that Sargent’s homosexuality “was notorious in Paris, and in Venice, positively scandalous. He was a frenzied bugger.”

This is what a de Glehn relative named John Debruyne has to say about it (which I discovered in the comments on this website):

Sargent always called him Premp and (this is dangerous territory) I think he was possibly romantically keen on his young protégé. When Willie married Jane Emmet he sulked for some months and only finally gave him a wedding present (A secretaire antique desk with a Lowestoft china dining set which I still have) some six months after the wedding.

There are those who say “so what?” and others who say Sargent’s work deserves to be observed and appreciated with a new eye. For my purposes here, I’m just curious (if it is true), what it all might have meant to Jane de Glehn. Did she know? Did she understand? She had been living in an artsy, bohemian millieu for over a decade. She couldn’t have been entirely innocent about homosexuality. Did she turn a blind eye or did she accept that her husband may have had a past? It’s so hard to know.

No matter what history Wilfred had with Sargent, it appears clear that Sargent became a big fan of Jane, at least according to de Glehn family legend:

Eventually he came to value Jane who was a capable American matriarch of the type he appreciated. He liked tough women.

The three of them grew closer after the de Glehns moved to their new home at 34 Cheyne Walk in London, just around the corner from Sargent’s Tite Street studio. Jane became known for being an excellent hostess to the artsy set of London. As is evident from Wilfred’s painting below, their new home was charming.


Wilfred de Glehn, Jane on the Staircase, Cheyne Walk, c. 1905

Wilfred de Glehn, Jane on the Staircase, Cheyne Walk, c. 1905













As soon as they were married, Jane and Wilfred began traveling with Sargent, starting with their honeymoon in Venice in 1904. All three would paint on their travels, Jane less prolifically than the two men. Sargent loved painting Jane. It would have given them long, leisurely hours to get to know each other. Jane wrote home that she found Sargent’s paintings of her to be “delicious” and “clever.”

Jane Emmet de Glehn, Wilfred Sketching in a Gondola, 1904

Jane Emmet de Glehn, Wilfred Sketching in a Gondola, 1904. Can you imagine a better souvenir of your honeymoon than this? Jane is very talented, clearly not just a dilettante.

John Singer Sargent, In a Gondola (Jane de Glehn), watercolor on paper (1904)

John Singer Sargent, In a Gondola (Jane de Glehn), watercolor on paper (1904).  This painting is from Jane and Wilfred’s honeymoon in Venice in 1904. Jane wrote home to her mother: “We went out sketching with Sargent the other day and he made a water colour of at the end of the gondola. Awfully clever. There is really no face. It is all white veil and hat, but it is deliciously done.”



In the summer of 1907, the de Glehns ventured out on a grand tour of Europe, starting in the Swiss Alps with Sargent, then traveling south to Florence, Perugia and Assisi  before meeting up with Sargent in Rome in September. Jane posed and painted.

Wilfred de Glehn, Jane by the Stream, Purtud, Val d'Aosta, 1907

Wilfred de Glehn, Jane by the Stream, Purtud, Val d’Aosta, 1907. In 1907, the de Glehns traveled with Sargent to the Swiss Alps. Jane posed for Sargent in the morning and for her husband in the afternoon. Notice Jane’s hat and scarf. It’s the same one she will be wearing when Sargent paints her again that fall for The Fountain, Villa Torlonia, Frascati.













Jane, Wilfred and Sargent arrived at Villa Torlonia in the village of Frascati in the fall of 1907. Frascati, also known for its white wines, is about 15 miles from Rome. They stayed at the Grand Hotel in Frascati (possibly the Villa Tuscolana today?) and as Jane said in her letters home, “found endless things to paint in the gardens of the Villa Torlonia.”

Wilfred de Glehn, Fountain at the Villa Torlonia, Frascati, oil on canvas, 1907

Wilfred de Glehn, Fountain at the Villa Torlonia, Frascati, oil on canvas, 1907, private collection. This is what Wilfred was working on before he took a break to rest beside his wife’s easel. Clearly, de Glehn and Sargent had similar painter sensibilities.














But back to Jane and Wilfred in front of the fountain. Apparently, Sargent was already painting Jane at the easel, when Wilfred took a break beside his wife. That was when Sargent got the idea to put Wilfred in the painting too. According to

The odd pose of Willie lounging beside Jane was an afterthought. “Stay there Premp.You look like her gigalo, I’ll paint you in.” Uncle Willie said it was agony after a while because the stone balustrade cut into his back.



Jane wrote home about the painting and the pose. Her letter reveals that the friendship between the three of them had developed nicely. You can tell Jane is a good-natured woman who could be teased without being threatened:

He [Sargent] has struck Wilfred in looking at my sketch with rather a contemptuous expression as much as to say ‘Can you do plain sewing any better?’………Wilfred is in shirt sleeves, very idle and good for nothing and our heads come against the great panache of the fountain.

So according to Jane, the look on Wilfred’s face (the same face I have been struggling to replicate, argh) is a conscious pose designed by Sargent to tell a story.

And what a story. The possible tensions between a husband and wife with equal or similar talent; the joy in artistic friendships, the surprising camaraderie of the three of them. Jane and Wilfred’s heads are both up against the powerful “panache” of the fountain, united but yet separate in their desire and effort to create art out of life. United yet separate in their friendship with Sargent.

They continued to paint and travel together until World War I broke out. In September 1909 Wilfrid and Jane joined Sargent, his sister Emily and Eliza Wedgwood in Venice and Corfu. They discovered the dazzling gardens of the Villa Soteriotisa in Corfu, where Sargent would paint In the Garden, Corfu.

John Singer Sargent,

John Singer Sargent, In a Garden, Corfu, oil on canvas, 1909. This painting was included in the Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends Exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of New York, and features Jane de Glehn in a blue gown surrounded by Sargent’s sister Emily and their friend Eliza Wedgwood.

Although Jane enjoyed posing for Wilfred and Sargent, she never gave up her own painting. Here is a lovely painting from a trip to Florence in 1910:

Jane Emmet de Glehn, Loggia of the Villa Toree Galli, Florence, oil on canvas, 1910


The truth is that Jane painted for pleasure, but her husband painted to make a living. Wilfred became a celebrated British painter, exhibiting widely and receiving numerous awards. He was elected to the Royal Academy in 1932. His exhibit history spans from 1894 to 2002. His paintings appear in dozens of museums today, from London to Australia to Washington, D.C. Jane would occasionally exhibit with him.

Jane would never have children and would never achieve the same success as her older sisters Rosina and Lydia or her cousin Bay. She would never be invited to paint the portrait of a sitting president, as Bay was. She would never experience the domestic pleasures of her sister Rosina, who after many years as a successful artist and illustrator, painted numerous portraits of her own five children.

And yet. She continued to paint nearly her entire life for the sheer joy of it. Here is a painting by Wilfred that shows her painting alongside the river Avon in 1943, at the age of 70. If you look closely under the tree on the right, you can see a woman in a white hat and white artist’s smock in front of an easel.

Wilfred de Glen, Jane de Glehn Painting by the River Avon, c. 1943

Wilfred de Glen, Jane de Glehn Painting by the River Avon, c. 1943









After Sargent’s passing in 1925, Jane and Wilfred’s marriage took them through two World Wars. Wilfred would pass away in 1951, Jane in 1961.

I would like to think she found great happiness. There is something very powerful and inspiring about her image as the painter at the fountain. An accomplished painter in her own right, a woman who painted for companionship and joy, not for fame and fortune, a true friend to John Singer Sargent, and not just a woman in the middle.

Jane and Wilfrid de Glehn in the mid-1940s

Jane and Wilfrid de Glehn in the mid-1940s

















Sources and Recommendations for Further Reading:

The Emmets- A Family of Women Painters by Martha J. Hoppin (1982)














An Interlude in Giverny by Joyce Henri Robinson and Derrick R. Cartwright (2000)



John Sargent by Evan Charteris (1927)

John Sargent by Evan Charteris

And for a wealth of biographical material on Wilfred de Glehn, see: www.deglehn.com.  For John Singer Sargent, see www.johnsingersargent.org.

The Accidental Empress Itinerary in Austria


the-accidental-empress-9781476790220_lgI first heard about Allison Pataki’s book The Accidental Empress from Barbara Rinella, a Chicago area friend and “book dramatist.” If you’ve never seen Barbara perform, check out her website, she’s a real tour de force. Hilarious and salty, Barbara dresses up like the character from a book — Marie Antoinette, Camille Monet, John Adams, to name a few — and gives a highly entertaining book review, as only a former high school English teacher could. She’ll be reviewing Accidental Empress and performing as Empress Sisi starting in the fall of 2015. You can catch her throughout Chicagoland, maybe on a cruise ship, and if you’re lucky, in a town near you.


I have a special interest in Empress Sisi after reading Accidental Empress and touring through Austria this summer. Sisi seemed to pop up everywhere on our travels. My husband finally asked, “Who is this Cissy anyway?” I answered: “It’s ‘Sisi.‘ She was  Empress Elisabeth of Austria, but so tragic, the Princess Diana of her time.” He gave me that look — you know, the ones husbands give when they realize they’re getting dragged into another museum.

Such is life with a history major.

The first stop on our Accidental Empress itinerary was the town of Bad Ischl, just an hour or so east of Salzburg in the Salzkammergut region of Austria. Bad Ischl was the summer playground of the Austrian aristocracy. As readers of the book know, this is where Elisabeth of Bavaria first met Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. Elisabeth was just 15 years old at the time, invited to Bad Ischl as a member of her older sister’s bridal party. Allison Pitaki’s book is perhaps the most fun when we see the (prettier, spunkier, more athletic) little sister steal the (older, quieter, bookish) sister’s betrothed. Wedding plans are quickly swapped out and “Sisi” becomes the accidental Empress of Austria.

Sisi’s mother-in-law bought a beautiful villa in Bad Ischl to give to Sisi and Franz Josef as a wedding gift. Over the next few years Franz Josef had it made into the beautiful Kaiservilla that still stands today. The palace, its beautiful grounds and Sisi’s little Tudor tea cottage are open to the public. It would make a great day trip from Salzburg or a good stop for lunch and a tour on the scenic route from Salzburg to Vienna.



After buying a ticket to the Kaiservilla you walk across the Kaiserbrücke, a  lovely steel arch bridge over the Ischl River. The stream is fast moving and fresh, just like it must have been in Sissi’s day.


A view of the front of the Kaiservilla in Bad Ischl. It is painted an imperial yellow similar to the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna.


The front of the Kaiservilla with the fountain in front.

The gravel driveway brings you into a lovely symmetrical plaza in front of the Kaiservilla. If you’re lucky you won’t have too long to wait before your timed guided tour of the villa begins.

A charming  huntsman statue, “The Listener” stands in the lawn in front of the grounds and gardens across from the villa. Emperor Frank Josef was a big hunter. The inside of the villa (no photos allowed) contains many hunting trophies, including antlers and deer heads.

This hunting statue called “The Listener” stands in the lawn in front of the grounds and gardens across from the villa. Emperor Frank Josef was a big hunter. The inside of the villa (no photos allowed) contains many hunting trophies, including antlers and deer heads.



Your first glimpse of Elisabeth’s Tea Cottage as you walk up the pebbled path from the palace. It reminds me a little bit of Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet at Versailles (although on a much smaller, less crazy scale). It must have offered a welcome feminine retreat away from the uber-masculine trophy hunter vibe of the main palace.


The beautiful front door of the Tea Cottage

Tea Cottage Interior


Tea Cottage’s wrap-around porch with iron railings and vines


All around the exterior of the Tea Cottage you can read signs and see photographs from Elisabeth’s time at Kaiservilla. She was considered quite the beauty.

This sign (in English and German) tells about the “imperial betrothal” at Bad Ischl.

After a couple-few hours in Bad Ischl there would be time to grab a quick bite and head back to Salzburg or to continue to drive on to Vienna, as we did.

In Vienna, you won’t want to miss the Imperial Apartments and the Sisi Museum at the Hofburg Palace, where Elisabeth and her husband Franz Josef lived (but not necessarily very happily) from 1854 until her death in 1898.

Hapsburg Palace in Vienna

Hofburg Palace in Vienna. You can buy tickets to visit the Imperial Apartments and the Sisi Museum. Highly recommended!



An original portrait of Elisabeth and her extraordinarily long hair hangs in the Imperial Apartments above a desk.



And of course, no itinerary is complete without a stop at the gift shop. The Sisi Museum Gift Shop offers every souvenir you can imagine, and then some. No, I didn’t buy a Sisi Fan, but I did pick up a few postcards to toss into my scrapbook.

I recently heard that Allison Pataki is currently writing a sequel to Accidental Empress, which I can’t wait to read. Maybe you’ll have time to plan your own Empress Elisabeth Itinerary in time for the next book!




Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki: Recommended





The Lady in Gold’s Footsteps in Vienna

Have you ever take a trip because of a book? I just did.

I’d always wanted to go to Vienna, but every time I got as far as Munich or Salzburg, it seemed I always had a reason to head elsewhere or hurry home. This time it would be different. I wanted to walk in the footsteps of The Lady in Gold by Anne Marie O’Connor.


I enjoyed the movie The Woman in Gold (I enjoyed Helen Mirren’s witty little quips), but it didn’t come close to covering the breadth and depth of the book.

From O’Connor’s book you get the whole story. You learn all about Gustav Klimt, his background, his rise to fame, and his women. About Adele Bloch-Bauer, her affluent Jewish family and her sophisticated intellectual circle. We learn how Klimt came to paint Adele’s famous portrait and how it became the Mona Lisa of fin de siècle Austria.

We don’t just learn what  became of The Lady in Gold after the Germans took over in 1938, we see how the entire Bloch-Bauer family suffered under Nazi rule. The Gestapo terrorized and extorted wealthy Viennese families to gain access to their factories, valuables and bank accounts which would be used to fuel their war machine. The story is much, much bigger than the story of one painting.

The losses of this extended family are staggering. Adele’s widowed husband Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer gave up his home and valuables in Vienna (with The Lady in Gold still inside) and escaped to his castle in Prague until that too was overtaken by the Nazis. Ferdinand lived until 1945, when he would die impoverished and alone in Switzerland. Adele’s nephew Leopold was arrested by the Gestapo and held until he promised to turn over the stock to the family sugar company. (Interesting sidebar: in 2005, Leopold’s heirs would receive $21 million in restitution for the theft of the sugar company, made possible by the collaboration of Swiss banks. Read more here.)

Adele’s niece Maria (played in the movie by Helen Mirren) and her new husband Fritz Altmann were able to sneak out of Vienna to England, thanks to the cash and connections of her father-in-law who owned a factory in Liverpool. Adele’s other niece, the Baroness Luise Gutmann, became trapped in Yugoslavia with her husband Viktor and her children. Viktor was arrested and killed by the Nazis, but Luise and the children survived. The remaining members of the Bloch-Bauer, Altmann and Gutmann families emigrated to Los Angeles and Vancouver after the war, living in close connection with other Austrians.

O’Connor even came upon a fascinating true story about how a different kind of “gay marriage” saved Jewish lives in Vienna. Gay culture had in fact flourished in artistic circles before the Nazis arrived. An underground network of eligible “Aryan bachelors” offered to marry Jewish women and get them out of Austria. A Bloch-Bauer in-law, Ada Stern, found a gay Dutch man who did exactly that.

Not surprisingly, the movie just scrapes the surface of all this tragic and important history of wartime Vienna. The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor is a must-read whether or not you have seen the movie. And once you’ve read it, you too will probably want to visit Vienna and walk in the footsteps of Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer.

First on my Lady in Gold literary tour was a walk to Adele Bloch-Bauer’s home near the Vienna Opera on Elisabethstrasse.



Standing in front of 18 Elisabethstrasse, the home of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer. They moved into this four-story palatial townhouse across from the Academy of Fine Art in 1919. In 1925, Adele died here, leaving the will instructing her husband to leave her two Klimt portraits to the Austrian Gallery after his death.

18 Elisabethstrasse, where Adele Bloch-Bauer would hold Saturday salons with her artistic and progressive circle of friends, including Alma Mahler, Richard Strauss and Karl Renner, the former chancellor of Austria. (Renner was also Adele’s lover – Adele’s maid had to quietly remove his love letters from her nightstand upon Adele’s death.)

Adele Bloch-Bauer’s lovely and sophisticated neighborhood. She lived across the street from Schillerpark and the Vienna Academy of Art. (The same academy that would reject Adolf Hitler’s application in 1907 after he flunked the drawing exam.) As Anne-Marie O’Connor says in The Lady in Gold: “If Adele had passed Hitler on the street in Vienna in those days, carrying his pants and pastels, she would have seen only an unfortunate young man, lacking in confidence. She probably would have felt sorry for him.”


The Secession Building in Vienna: Gustav Klimt's Beethoven Frieze

The Secession Building in Vienna, 12 Friedrichstrasse: A must-see for Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze. Klimt created the frieze in 1902 for the XIVth Secessionist Exhibit. The frieze stayed in place until 1903, the year that Klimt would begin his portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. If you’re following in my own footsteps, this building is just a couple of blocks from 18 Elisabethstrasse on the other side of the Academy of Fine Arts.

The Secession Building: Unfortunately photos aren’t allowed inside, so you’ll either have to visit for yourself or check out the photos on their website, http://www.secession.at/beethovenfries/index.html. Klimt made a stunning use of gold leaf and displayed a highly modern sensibility with a great deal of nudity. Adele would have had no illusions about what kind of portrait she would be sitting for.                                                                          By the way, there is litigation over the Beethoven Frieze as well. Heirs of Erich Lederer, the owner of the frieze at the time of its “Aryanization,” have sued the Austrian government for its return. Although Lederer was paid $750,000 for the frieze in in 1973, it was far below its fair market value. The Austrian government and the Secession Building are fighting for the right to keep it. Read Anne-Marie O’Connor’s Huffington Post article here.


A visit to Vienna wouldn't be complete without a trip to the Belvedere Palace, which was once home to the Lady in Gold.

A visit to Vienna wouldn’t be complete without a trip to the Belvedere Palace, 27 Prinz Eugen-Strasse, which is just a short scenic walk from the Secession Building. This art museum might not be the home to the Lady in Gold anymore, but it still holds The Kiss, and plenty of other fabulous works of art.

The view from the inside of the Belvedere.

The view from the inside of the Belvedere.

A terrace of the Belvedere

A terrace of the Upper Belvedere looking through the gardens toward the Lower Belvedere.

Picture Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds right here.

Picture Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds walking in the gardens of the Belvedere.

 I just had to go find the Jewish Memorial that Ryan Reynolds visited at the end of the movie. It's located in the Judenplatz, over in the older area of Vienna. Definitely worth the longer walk from the other sites.

I just had to go find the Jewish Holocaust Memorial that Ryan Reynolds visited at the end of the movie. It’s located in the Judenplatz, over in the older area of Vienna. It is named Silent Library and was designed to resemble book with their spines turned inward, which represents all the life stories that will never be known. Definitely worth the longer walk from the other sites.



The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O’Connor: Very highly recommended


For further reading:

The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. I read this haunting autobiography-memoir while I was visiting Salzburg and Vienna this summer. One of the best book and travel pairings I’ve ever made. Set in Vienna, Salzburg, Paris and much of Europe, it was published after Zweig’s exile to Brazil and his subsequent suicide. It is a beautifully told story about the lost world of old world Vienna and the horror of a world in the midst of war. Fun fact (as revealed in The Lady in Gold): Stefan Zweig was a friend of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Very highly recommended.

world of yesterday












The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey. The story of Gustave Klimt and his long-time companion, partner and muse Emilie Flöge, the subject of The Kiss.












The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund DeWaal. Read my prior posts here: Vienna Sites, and Paris Sites.






Freud’s Mistress by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman (historical fiction set in turn-of-the-century Vienna).