A Viennese Corner in New York
Home to Klimt’s Woman in Gold, the Neue Galerie offers New Yorkers a taste of Vienna and shines a spotlight on the culture and art of 20th-century Austria and Germany.
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A Beaux-Arts limestone mansion proudly stands on the corner of 86th Street and Fifth Avenue. A bronze plaque marks the entrance: “Neue Galerie” (New Gallery). Dedicated to Austrian and German art of the 20th century, this jewel-box museum is home to Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece, The Woman in Gold; compositions by Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoshcka, and Alfred Kubin; and Café Sabarsky, a grand cafe reminiscent of Vienna’s cafe culture.
The Neue Galerie is the brainchild of Viennese art dealer Serge Sabarsky and Ronald Lauder, heir to the Estée Lauder fortune and one-time American ambassador to Austria. The two shared a passion for modern Austrian and German art. After a friendship of 30 years involving daily phone calls and weekly meetings, Lauder opened the museum in 2001, five years after Sabarsky’s death. The museum houses Café Sabarsky as an homage to its late founder.
The visit begins after ascending a flight of marble stairs and landing at a second-floor room dedicated to the works of Gustav Klimt. The dazzling centerpiece is, of course, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907), also known as The Woman in Gold. The only painting in Neue Galerie to claim its own wall, The Woman in Gold is the museum’s crown jewel.
Gustav Klimt was one of the key figures of the Viennese Secession movement at the beginning of the 20th century. The movement rebelled against academic art rooted in strict tradition and called for the integration of painting, decorative arts, and architectural elements to form what was called “Total Art.” Vienna’s newfound modernism rivaled that of Paris, which had similarly begun breaking from traditional art forms in the 19th century under artists like Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Celebrated for his portraits and landscapes, Klimt became one of the most sought-after artists in Viennese high society.
Adele Bloch-Bauer sat for Klimt numerous times. The Jewish socialite was a patron of the arts, frequently hosting artists, literary figures, and politicians in her salon. Klimt finished The Woman in Gold over the course of three years. More than 100 early sketches of the work survive, two of which are exhibited in the museum. Inspired by sixth-century Byzantine mosaics that Klimt saw on a trip to Ravenna, the painting portrays Bloch-Bauer in a saintly way, using a golden halo and a shimmering, ornamented backdrop. Much of the portrait employs an elaborate technique involving gold and silver leaf embellishments, a prime characteristic of Klimt’s work during this time that designated it his “Golden Phase.” The work uses blue undertones to contrast the circle of warmth that surrounds Bloch-Bauer, who looks longingly toward the viewer. Her melancholy face is hauntingly pale and mysterious; the painting’s sensuality is maintained by her deep, shadowed eyes and flushed cheeks and lips. Her ornate, geometrically patterned dress—studded with her initials—further sets Bloch-Bauer apart from the background.
This piece and five other Klimts were confiscated during a raid of Bloch-Bauer’s house in 1938 by the Nazis and were moved to the Belvedere Palace in Austria. In 2006, after a seven-year legal battle, the stolen paintings were returned to Bloch-Bauer’s niece, Maria Altmann, the legal heir. Lauder immediately bought Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I from her for an estimated $135 million, the highest price paid for an artwork at the time. In an interview with the Observer, Lauder, who is of Jewish descent and an activist for Jewish causes, explained, “This painting means everything to me. [...] It’s a symbol of what happened. In World War II, there were very few happy endings. This was one.” Lauder described the painting as the Neue Galerie’s “Mona Lisa.”
A visit to the Neue Galerie would be incomplete without a meal at the cafe. Encased by dark wood-paneled walls and a high ceiling lined with intricate moldings, the restaurant is often bustling with aesthetes and museumgoers. Large windows overlook leafy Fifth Avenue and Central Park beyond. Along with a grand piano in the corner, the room is adorned with thonet chairs, banquettes, and the newspaper racks typical of Viennese cafes.
The Sabarsky Café offers a standard Viennese cafe fare with various coffee and pastry specialties, open-faced sandwiches, and savory traditional Viennese dishes such as Spätzle (a type of Austrian pasta), Wiener Schnitzel (thinly-pounded, fried veal chop), and roasted Bratwurst (sausage). On my most recent visit, I had the Kaiser Mélange, a dessert-like coffee topped with a generous dollop of whipped cream, and the Bratwurst, served with sauerkraut, potatoes, and a sharp mustard that completed the dish. The smoked trout crepe and open sandwich with herring, apples, and red onions are also favorites of mine. For dessert, the Sacher-Torte is a must-have—a dark chocolate cake infused with apricot, it is arguably Vienna’s most famous culinary invention. The food is art in itself, allowing one to experience, taste, and feel Vienna as well as admire it.
Lauder’s execution of his and Sabarsky’s dream captures the heart of Vienna. A trip to the Neue Galerie is a moment to engage with a masterpiece steeped in history and be immersed in Viennese culture.