This is the only painting by Klimt in a British public collection, and it’s a fine example of the portraits of society women he painted in the early years of the twentieth century. Wearing a shimmering dress made of translucent white chiffon, Hermine Gallia appears almost to float before us. The sinuous lines of her dress recall Art Nouveau and Japanese prints. The geometrical pattern of its lower half, and the mosaic-like design of the carpet, hint at the ‘Byzantine’ style Klimt was to adopt a few years later.
Klimt was the leading artist in Austria at the time. He was a founder member and the first president of the Vienna Secession, an association established in 1897 to promote modernism in art, design and architecture. Hermine Gallia and her husband were also important patrons of the avant garde.
This is the only painting by Klimt in a British public collection. Hermine Gallia, née Hamburger, was born into a Jewish family in Western Silesia (now part of the Czech Republic). In 1893 she married her uncle, Moriz Gallia, who was 12 years older and originally from Moravia. Hermine and her husband were among the many thousands of Jews in the Austro-Hungarian Empire who had moved to Vienna, where they helped create a newly wealthy middle class in the city.
Unable to match the social pedigree of the established Catholic nobility, this new middle class instead asserted itself through cultural patronage, often favouring the avant garde. By around 1900, the Gallias were part of Gustav Klimt’s circle. Klimt was by then Vienna’s most avant-garde, and expensive, artist. He was a founder-member and the first president of the Vienna Secession, an association established in 1897 to promote modernism in art, design and architecture. By commissioning a portrait from Klimt, the Gallias were making a clear statement about their own social status – one that was based on taste, rather than birth.
Around 40 preparatory sketches for the portrait have been identified. Klimt produced these quickly, as Hermine moved around his studio. In some she is seated in profile, in others she is shown full-face. As with many of his sketches for portraits, Klimt gave little attention to the face, which lacks any distinctive features except for traces of mask-like features. Instead, he focused on the pose, finally choosing one that allowed him to display much of the dress, which takes up almost a third of the picture. It is a fashionable ‘reform’ dress, which had recently replaced the narrow wasp-waist style.
Klimt chose the dress himself, and he may also have been involved in its design with his partner, Emilie Flöge. Made of layers of semi-translucent creamy white chiffon, it is secured by a pale salmon-pink waistband. It was a challenging material to paint. Klimt differentiated between the various patterns and textures of the delicate fabric – the denser layering of the shoulders of the short jacket, for example, contrasts with the narrow stripes of the almost transparent sleeves of the dress itself. The white boa around Hermine’s neck echoes the swell of her shoulders and sleeves, and forms an oval with her tilted head at one end and clasped hands at the other. In the lower left of the picture, the dress’s gossamer train, which sweeps around Hermine’s legs, has a faintly geometrical pattern. This echoes the modernist design of the carpet on which she stands. The mosaic-like treatment of the carpet is itself a reference to mosaics Klimt had admired when he had visited Ravenna, Italy in early 1903. By this time, the Viennese modernist architect Josef Hoffmann was also using mosaic patterns in his architectural designs. Although limited mainly to the carpet, this mosaic effect hints at the ‘Byzantine’ style that Klimt was to adopt from around 1906.
Klimt paints Hermine’s dress with long sweeping brushstrokes, using shorter strokes for the ruffles of the boa. The thin paint not only allows the pale priming of the canvas to come through, but also recreates the effect of the translucent material – for example, around her arms. Although soft whites and pale greys predominate, there are hints of pink and also of a blue undertone. Hermine’s face is painted more smoothly. Partly framed by her distinctively styled dark hair, its paleness echoes the white dress below, just as the touches of orange-pinks on her cheeks, lips and ears echo the pink of the waistband and jacket cuffs. The only area of thickly applied paint is the heavily encrusted brooch, which almost stands out from the canvas. The cluster of rings and the pearl earring also introduce tiny highlights of intense colour.
Swathed in billowing diaphanous fabric, Hermine herself seems almost to float weightless above the floor. Her white dress recalls portraits by James McNeill Whistler – for example, Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl (Tate Britain, London) – but her stylised outline also has echoes of geishas in the Japanese prints that were highly popular with many artists in the late nineteenth century. The sinuous outline of the drapery shows the influence of the serpentine lines of Art Nouveau. Although Hermine looks back at us, her expression seems slightly distant, even dreamy, as if she is absorbed in her own thoughts. In a case of life imitating art, one biographer has described how, in later photographs of herself, she tried ‘to live up to Klimt’s picture’ by replicating her pose, tilt of the head and hairstyle.
Moriz and Hermine’s support for contemporary art and design was to extend beyond Klimt. They assembled a substantial collection of silverware and ceramics from the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshop) – they also became shareholders after it faced bankruptcy – and in 1913 commissioned Hoffmann to design and furnish their apartment in a newly built five-storey residential building on wealthy Wohllebengasse (‘Good Living Street’). The couple’s modernist sensibility is evident in Klimt’s portrait, which was first shown in late 1903 in an incomplete but advanced state at the Klimt Kollektive exhibition at the Secession. Klimt’s ‘ladies’ portraits’ were intended to be part of a carefully designed environment that was a Gesamtkunstwerk or ‘total work of art’. A photograph published in a contemporary magazine, Die Kunst, shows that the Gallia portrait was displayed in the exhibition within a typically Secessionist interior, between two cubic chairs designed by Koloman Moser. When the portrait was hung at the Gallias’ home, Hermine’s white dress and the picture’s long rectangular frame complemented the apartment’s fluted white neoclassical columns.
The couple’s assimilation into Viennese society through patronage of modern art and design was only partially successful. Like many Viennese Jews, Hermine and Moriz had their children baptised as Catholics and themselves converted in 1910. This allowed them to enter Vienna’s ‘second society’, just below the older aristocracy, and for Moriz to secure the title of imperial councillor. However, conversion to Catholicism did not protect their children from the anti-Jewish Nuremberg laws introduced in 1935. Following the Anschluss (the union of Austria and Nazi Germany) of 1938, the Gallia children were no longer Austrian citizens, but became German Jews. They fled Austria in late 1938 and settled in Australia, taking this portrait with them.
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