Her stunning portrait by Gustav Klimt opens the exhibition Beyond Klimt. New Horizons in Europe 1914-1938. She looks you straight in the eye on the posters promoting the show. But who is the woman in this striking image?
Her name is Johanna Staude and she modeled several times for Klimt. She also posed for his younger colleague Egon Schiele.
Not that much is known about her. We do have a birth date though: February 16, 1883. At the time Klimt paints this portrait, she is registered to be living in the Fourth District of Vienna, 20 Viktorgrasse, with her mother. Her occupation is stated as ‘language teacher’.
Some years later she has moved to the Sixth District and now gives her profession as that of ‘painter’. The same profession appears on Johanna’s death certificate, which also divulges she is registered as a catholic and that she’s a widow. We don’t know whom she married or when, but a photograph held at the Belvedere in Vienna might hold a clue. On the back of it she is referred to as ‘Johanna Staude-Wilicka’.
This portrait of Johanna Staude, which remained unfinished, was painted in 1917/8 and is one of the very last portraits Klimt ever produced. In this late stage of his career, portraits and landscapes play an ever-greater role, while allegorical themes recede noticeably into the background.
His luxurious portraits of women, basking in a dreamy vibrancy, remained very popular, even though they must have seemed like an anachronism to contemporaries facing the bitter realities of the war years. There are no references to the war in Klimt’s post-1914 paintings. Beauty in the midst of tumultuous, ugly times.
Johanna however does not appear as an image from the past. She’s a thoroughly modern woman, with a fashionable haircut, who directs her gaze at the viewer. The writer Peter Altenberg, who employed Johanna at some point, described her as “a modern angel”. Her vivid presence is conjured by Klimt’s more dynamic brushstrokes and broader application of paint, typical for his late style.
She appears dressed in an eye-catching fabric designed by Martha Alber, produced at the famous Wiener Werkstätte around 1910. The blouse is also in the collection of the Belvedere.
When Johanna asked Klimt why he never had completed the portrait, especially the mouth, the painter replied: “Because you will never return to my studio.”
Gustav Klimt died of a heart attack and/or pneumonia on February 6, 1918. Johanna Staude died on July 2, 1967, in Vienna. Four years before her death she finally sold the portrait to the Belvedere.
Parts of this article are nased on the essay Gustav Klimt’s Late Work and his Relationship with the Viennese Avant-Garde by Franz Smola in the exhibition catalogue.