Sitting for Klimt; Five Novellas


Klimt's affair with Anna Glass began in an unusual way. A formal letter arrived by messenger from a devoted husband requesting an after business hours audience in Herr Klimt's studio to discuss an important commission. "One you will not regret, Herr Klimt," the letter said. It was signed in Gothic script: Herr Otto Glass.

Klimt had never met Herr Glass before, though he knew him by reputation. Like his father before him, Glass was a banker and an entrepreneur with interests in lumber, coal, and fisheries. His wealth—some inherited, some self-made—assured unprecedented influence at the Hapsburg Court. His enemies, of which there were many, dismissed him as a Court Jew. Obsequious, ingratiating, these were the epithets whispered in the corridors of the Emperor's palace. But Otto Glass was nothing of the kind. Rather, he was a maverick, more in the spirit of the New World than the Old, a man willing to take risks.

Otto Glass held the Emperor's attention with financial counsel, his extraordinary wife, Anna, and unconventional notions about the natural lassitude of the human body and its resistance to change. "We are designed to remain in stasis at age thirty," he argued. The Emperor was rapt and hushed everyone who dared speak while Herr Glass spoke. "The decrepitude of our muscles and bones as we move through the decades past our youthful vigor is an illusion," Glass continued. "Underneath the decaying form, there is renewal." The Emperor, then entering the seventh decade of his life, never tired of this confected paradigm. Nor did he tire of Anna, though he kept his distance, admiring her only from afar. In high society there were rules regarding Jews, as Klimt well knew, and it was a matter of survival for those beleaguered people to be cognizant of them, whatever they were, at any particular moment in time. Yet, on the surface, Klimt observed, Herr Otto Glass did not seem to follow any rules, in Court or out. His conversations with the Emperor were reported bitterly in the daily papers as the meandering idiocies of an opportunist. All Court Jews were opportunists, these reports implied. Kimt did not agree. Nonetheless, he followed the newspaper accounts avidly, as did everyone else in Vienna. They had an admirable coherence and added spice to his breakfast which, by order of his physician, had become necessarily bland in recent years. And now a letter had arrived from Herr Glass himself about a possible commission. Klimt could not have been more pleased.

"Where will the painting be displayed?" he had asked Herr Glass on the day of their first appointment. What he had in mind was a prominent position in the Glass household, the salon for example, where all the important visitors to the house might see it. But Herr Glass had not thought that far. His stated intention was to present the portrait to his wife as a gift for her twenty-fifth birthday. He offered a photograph of her taken on their wedding day—February 12, 1906—from which, he hoped, Herr Klimt could work.

"Impossible," Klimt said. "I only work from live models."

"Indeed. Well, then, what is to be done?"

"I must meet your wife. Then we shall see," Klimt said.

--from Sitting for Klimt