Gustav Klimt Portrait Set To Break European Auction Records 

Gustav Klimt

Sotheby’s is auctioning a painting by Gustav Klimt that is one of the most sought after and valuable works of art ever to be offered in Europe. Standing on an easel in Gustav Klimt’s studio at the time of the artist’s unexpected and untimely death in February 1918, Dame mit Fächer (Lady with a Fan) – a beautiful, rich and alluring portrait of an unnamed woman – brings together all the technical prowess and creative vitality that define Klimt’s most significant work.

The last portrait Klimt painted, Dame mit Fächer is also among his finest works, created when he was still in his artistic prime and at a moment when the ‘formality’ of his earlier commissioned work gives way to a new expressivity – an ever-deeper, ever-more joyful immersion in pattern, colour and form, which – while influenced by his contemporaries Van Gogh, Matisse and Gauguin – became something entirely different in his hands.

Similarly, while the slightly earlier works of Klimt’s famous ‘golden period’ – led by the iconic portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I of 1907 – see their sitter presented icon-like, amid a tapestry of golden shapes, here the sitter almost dissolves into the background, the soft patterning of the woman’s skin repeated in the pale-yellow background.

Klimt first started work on Lady with a Fan in 1917. By that time, he was among the most celebrated portraitists in Europe: commissions came thick and fast, for which he could command prices far higher than any of his contemporaries. But this was a rare work painted entirely in the pursuit of his interests. Full of freedom and spontaneity, it reflects Klimt’s joy in painting it and celebrating beauty in its purest form. It also reveals his innovative approach. Traditionally, portraits were – and still are – painted in the eponymous’ portrait (or vertical) form’. Here, Klimt returns to the square format he used for his avant-garde landscapes earlier in the century, giving this painting a uniquely modern edge.

Klimt also fully expresses his fascination with Chinese and Japanese art and culture. Luscious, silken kimonos and Chinese robes are known to have been his dress wear of choice, and his home abounded with beautiful objects from the East. Egon Schiele, a regular visitor, describes it like this: ‘The sitting room, [was] furnished with a square table in the middle and a large number of Japanese prints covering the walls… and from there into another room whose wall was entirely covered by a huge wardrobe, which held his marvellous collection of Chinese and Japanese robes.’

In Dame mit Fächer, Klimt draws principally on Chinese motifs: the phoenix (symbol of immortality and rebirth, good fortune and fidelity) and lotus blossoms (symbols of love, happy marriage and purity). Meanwhile, his flattening of the background and juxtaposition of patterns reflects his deep interest in Japanese woodblock prints.

“The beauty and sensuality of the portrait lie in detail: the flecks of blue and pink which enliven the sitter’s skin, the feathery lines of her eyelashes and the pursed lips that give her face character. Klimt here gave himself full freedom to capture a devastatingly beautiful woman on canvas. Her provocatively bared shoulder, poise and quiet self-assurance combine to stunning effect.”

The painting was acquired shortly after Klimt’s death by Viennese industrialist Erwin Böhler. The Böhler family, including Erwin’s brother Heinrich and his cousin Hans, were close friends and patrons of both Klimt and Egon Schiele. They vacationed with Gustav Klimt on the Attersee, a lake near Salzburg that inspired many of the artist’s most important landscapes and can be seen in photographs together. In 1916 Erwin purchased the Litzelberg – a small island in the lake immortalised in Klimt’s paintings. An important supporter of the arts, Erwin Böhler commissioned leading architect Josef Hoffmann to decorate the rooms of his apartment in the Palais Dumba in Vienna, where the painting hung in the Music Room alongside Klimt’s landscapes Waldabhang in Unterach am Attersee and Presshaus am Attersee which were also part of his collection. The work eventually passed to Heinrich and then, upon his death in 1940, to Heinrich’s wife, Mabel.

By 1967 it was in the collection of Rudolf Leopold, who is known to have purchased a large group of Schiele drawings from Mabel Böhler in 1952 and may also have acquired this work from her. Dame mit Fächer was last offered for sale nearly thirty years ago, in 1994, when the present owner’s family received it. Most recently, it was the subject of an important exhibition at the Belvedere in Vienna, where it was reunited with and shown alongside Klimt’s other great, late masterpieces.

The exhibition of the painting in Sotheby’s New Bond Street galleries later this month will mark a significant moment for Klimt lovers in London, with three major portraits by the artist on view simultaneously in the capital for the first time. (The other portraits, Hermine Gallia of 1904 and Adele Bloch Bauer II of 1912 are currently on view in the National Gallery’s much-acclaimed show, ‘After Impressionism’.)

One of only a small number of portraits by Klimt still in private hands, Lady with a Fan will be offered in Sotheby’s marquee Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction in London on 27 June with an estimate in the region of £65 million ($80 million).

The appearance of this significant work at auction marks a critical moment for the market: not only is the painting the most valuable ever to have been offered at auction in Europe, but it also now joins the ranks of the most valuable portraits – of any era – ever to have come to auction.

Klimt also sits in the select pantheon of artists to have achieved over $100m at auction – his Birch Forest having sold as part of the Paul G. Allen Collection last year for $104.6m. While that was a landscape, only one portrait by Klimt of this calibre has ever appeared at auction before: Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, from 1912, which made $87.9m in 2006.

Dame mit Fächer also joins a strong sequence of spectacular works to have starred in Sotheby’s Marquee Seasons in London: most recently René Magritte’s L’empire des lumières (sold for £59.4m / $79.8m, March 2022) and Wassily Kandinsky’s Murnau mit Kirche II (sold for £37.2m / $44.9m, March 2023).

Photo: Courtesy Sotheby’s

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