Gustav Klimt had close ties with the Lederer family, both as personal friends and as patrons who
commissioned major portraits and purchased many of his works. August Lederer (1857–1936) was the
owner of the distillery in Györ. He and his wife Serena (1867–1943), prominent representatives of the
enlightened Jewish haute bourgeoisie, were major supporters of the Viennese avant-garde. They owned
masterpieces by Klimt such as the Faculty Paintings Philosophy and Jurisprudence, the Beethoven Frieze,
Schubert at the Piano, The Girlfriends, Leda and the Swan as well as a number of important landscapes.
This affluent couple was particularly impressed by Klimt’s outstanding draughtsmanship. Indeed,
when the art dealer Gustav Nebehay presented around two hundred of the finest drawings from his
friend’s estate in 1919, one year after the artist’s death, Serena Lederer spontaneously purchased all of
the exhibits. The Lederer family’s Vienna apartment continued to be the greatest private Klimt
gallery even after his death. During the Nazi regime, Serena, now a widow, was dispossessed of her
collection and it was placed in storage at Schloss Immendorf in Lower Austria in 1944. In 1945 retreating
German troops set fire to the castle; all of the artworks, including a dozen masterpieces by
Gustav Klimt went up in flames.
A unique chapter in the story is told by the portraits Klimt painted of Serena Lederer, her daughter
Elisabeth and her mother Charlotte Pulitzer. It is the only instance in Klimt’s career when he painted
three generations of the same family. In 1899 Klimt, who had been the Secession’s first President in
1897 and 1898, painted the portrait of Serena Lederer. The raven-haired beauty with a mysterious
smile is presented in a white, flowing reform dress befitting the ideals of Jugendstil. When this masterpiece
of Viennese modernism was exhibited at the Secession in 1901 it was met with great acclaim.
The last two portraits were commissioned late in Klimt’s career. By that time he had abandoned the
Golden Style in favour of vibrant colours and lively, free brushwork. One year before he died, he
painted Charlotte Pulitzer, a figure seated in a frontal position, a dignified smile upon her lips. The portrait of Elisabeth Lederer (1894–1944), who had married Baron Wolfgang von Bachofen-Echt in
1921, was painted between 1914 and 1916.
In this portrait Elisabeth Lederer is shown standing, a fashionably attired figure in a frontal pose. Her
symmetrical round face is dominated by her dark eyes and the brilliant red of her smiling mouth.
Her garments in gleaming shades of white cut a striking silhouette; the ruche tapering, trouser-like
dress was the height of fashion at the time and she holds her floral lace stole with boldly accentuated
A characteristic of Klimt’s work is the manner in which the main figure and her decorative
background appear almost to communicate with one another. He has based the vibrantly adorned
triangle surrounding the figure and anchoring it to the surface on a Chinese dragon robe. This ceremonial
garment, with decor alluding to the universe, enhances the magical character of the sitter.
Behind her in a backdrop of clouds, Chinese figures pay their respects to the young woman.
Later on Elisabeth recalled in writing how Gustav Klimt had been close to her since childhood and
that ‘uncle’ had spent months drawing her in different poses.3 Much to the artist’s annoyance her
mother had sometimes intervened with her own ideas about the toilette and position. As Klimt kept
delaying completion of the painting, Serena eventually just appeared and took it with her.
In the present work Klimt has devoted one side of the paper to the whole figure [verso], whose face he
has indicated only cursorily. Using energetic pencil strokes he captured the outlines and the
turbulent ‘inner life’ of the garments, but the figure does not hold the patterned stole in this study,
as she does in the final painting. The other side of the sheet shows the sitter’s physiognomy in detail
[recto]. As Alice Strobl noted, her frontal, round and stylized face recalls studies for the late
portrayals of Frederike Beer-Monti and Margarethe-Constance Lieser.4 Her hair is styled differently
from the painting and is only outlined; the main emphasis is on the precisely drawn, dark eyes with
heavy brows. As with many other examples, Klimt could have based this on a photo. The intense
gaze, fixated on the viewer, derives from Klimt’s early Symbolist portraits. This head study is unique
among the sketches known for the portrait of Elisabeth Lederer, adding to the rarity of the drawing.