Exhibitions Conservation Austria

Klimt’s mystery woman unveiled

Experts support later dating after recent conservation work—and little-known portrait will go on show in Vienna for the first time

Conservators cleaned the work, revealing the artist’s Impressionistic handling of his subject’s skin

A virtually unknown portrait by Gustav Klimt, which was once believed to be one of the artist’s earliest surviving works, has been redated to 15 years later than originally thought after a recent investigation by conservators. Portrait of a Lady with a Lilac Scarf, which has never been exhibited publicly, is due to be unveiled at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum on 22 May (until 31 August). The identity of the sitter remains a mystery.

Although the portrait appears in Klimt’s three catalogues raisonnés (published in 1967, 2007 and 2012), it was only reproduced as a grainy black-and-white photograph, and the lower part of the painting—an 11cm-high golden rectangle—was omitted.

The 2007 catalogue by Alfred Weidinger dates the piece to around 1880, when the artist was just 17 years old. This would make it one of his earliest surviving paintings. Tobias Natter’s 2012 catalogue dates the portrait to 1880-82.

Conservators at the museum recently cleaned the painting, transforming its readability and leading the institution to redate it to 1895 or later. This is partly because of the Impressionistic handling of the woman’s skin, which is now more clearly visible. The pink, light blue and orange hues are typical of the artist’s work in the late 1890s.

The gold rectangle, which is probably partly decorative, is similar to the golden borders in The Actor Josef Lewinsky as Carlos and Love, both 1895. Klimt’s signature is consistent with examples from the mid-1890s. Having seen the cleaned painting, both Weidinger and Natter support the later dating. Infrared investigations have revealed changes, particularly around the face, to the underdrawing.

The work was acquired by the Viennese businessman Georg Lasus, an early collector of works by the Austrian artist. After his death in 1933, the portrait passed to his son-in-law, the artist Josef Danilowatz. At least two of the family’s works by Klimt were the subject of forced sales in 1939; Vienna’s Belvedere gallery restituted two pictures to Lasus’s heirs in 2000.

Portrait of a Lady with a Lilac Scarf remained in the family, and Lasus’s heirs donated the work to the Kunsthistorisches Museum last year. It will be exhibited in the museum’s main building, which normally shows pictures made before 1800, and will then probably go on permanent display in the Theatermuseum.

The intriguing question is the identity of the sitter, a woman around 30 years old. The oval format suggests that it was modelled on a similarly shaped photograph, probably of someone who had died.

Guido Messling, a curator at the museum, says that the portrait may have been commissioned to serve as “a personal memento of the sitter”. The gold-leaf box at the bottom may have been intended for an inscription. The fact that the painting is signed presumably means that Klimt regarded it as finished.

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