Ria Munk couldn’t have known when she received the devastating letter from her fiancé at the end of 1911 that the cad was really doing her a favor. In an early-20th century version of romantic cowardice, Hanns Heinz Ewers called off their engagement via post on the grounds that his intended was a hopeless romantic who was out of touch with reality.
At the time, Ewers was an up-and-coming author who had wooed the rich industrialist’s daughter.
His literary reputation would eventually change—he would become known as the “Edgar Allan Poe of Germany” for his macabre works on vampires and such—but so too would his politics.
Ewers was a devout follower of his home country as it marched increasingly toward militarism in the early 20th century, and he would become an unapologetic Nazi during WWII.
A young, Jewish Ria had been spared a dastardly husband by that letter. But she couldn’t have known it at the time. Instead, Ewers’ words broke her fragile, 24-year-old heart, and Munk committed suicide by shooting herself in the chest on Dec. 28, 1911.
In the grief that followed, her parents, Alexander and Aranka Munk, commissioned the most famous artist in Vienna to paint a portrait of their deceased daughter.
After Gustav Klimt’s first two attempts were rejected, he set about painting a third portrait of young Ria. But the masterpiece that started in death ended that way as well.
In 1918, Klimt died and left the Portrait of Ria Munk III unfinished on his easel, forever a source of fascination for art scholars interested in the great Austrian artist’s process.
While the commission started with a devastating loss, it had all the signs of being a successful artistic endeavor. Aranka Munk—née Pulitzer, of the newspaper Pulitzers—was not only the wife of a wealthy businessman in Vienna, she was also the sister of Serena Lederer, who, with her husband, was the primary benefactor and collector of Klimt.
It was Serena who most likely arranged for the painter to ply his brush to help heal the hearts of the grieving parents.
By the beginning of 1912, the 49-year-old Klimt was already well-established as not only the finest artist in Vienna, but also one of the greatest portrait painters—particularly of women—in the world.
You could say he had completed an intense, personal study of his favorite subject. The artist—who was known to paint in a smock and only a smock—was a notorious Lothario who fathered some 14 illegitimate children over the course of his life.
“Klimt’s relationships with women were nothing if not complex,” Thomas Micchelli wrote in Hyperallergic in 2016. “He never married yet maintained a decades-long intimacy with Emilie Louise Flöge, the younger sister of his brother Ernst’s wife, while carrying on innumerable affairs with models—who occupied virtually the same social standing as prostitutes—as well as patrons from the highest echelons of Viennese life.”
But despite his somewhat scandalous reputation, he was the artistic darling of Viennese society and anybody who was anybody had a Klimt hanging proudly in their home.
“Most of his clients were wealthy Jews, and owning a Klimt was a mark of prestige,” Janis Staggs, a curator at the Neue Galerie told NPR. “I think to those families it was a way of saying they had made it.”
But when Klimt finished his first piece for the Munks, Ria Munk on the Deathbed (or Ria Munk I), the portrait may have seemed a little too on the nose. On a square canvas he portrayed a close up of a young Ria lying on her deathbed, face beatifically pale and perfect, eyes closed in angelic repose, and roses strewn about her head and neck.
It’s a beautiful painting, complete with his characteristic soft and loose brushstrokes.
To Klimt’s credit, deathbed portraits were all the rage. In fact, everything about this situation conformed to the utmost of Viennese vogue. At the time, suicide had become a more prevalent practice in the gilded city, a dramatic form of acting out one’s honor akin to dueling. Portraits of the deceased on their deathbeds had become “highly fashionable” among the elite.
“In Vienna, even funerals found enthusiastic audiences and it was the ambition of every true Viennese to have a lovely corpse, with a majestic procession and many followers,” the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig wrote in his 1943 book The World of Yesterday. (It was the last he would finish. He and his wife committed double suicide in 1942 while living in Brazil after fleeing the Nazis.)
But what family really wants to have a permanent reminder of their daughter at the moment of her death hanging on their wall? The Munks certainly didn’t, and they told Vienna’s most famous painter, “No, thank you.”
So, Klimt got to work painting a second portrait. This time, he painted a lively Ria in full-length—his latest stylistic approach to portraiture. It’s unclear who pulled the plug on this second attempt.
Some sources say the Munks again nixed it, while others report that Klimt himself was finding it unwieldy and put it aside. He is reported to have told his lover Emilie Flöge, “The Munk portrait... wouldn’t come together! Can’t make it a likeness!”
It is thought that he eventually used this second abandoned painting of Ria as the basis of the painting now known as The Dancer, which many believe is a depiction of the dancer Johanna Jusl.
Whether Klimt was being highly paid for each attempt or whether he was stubbornly committed to getting Ria right, he set about a third and final attempt at creating her posthumous portrait. It is thought that he made at least 20 sketches of this piece before he began painting, using a photograph of Ria as his guide.
In 1918, he died before the painting could be finished, but what he did complete is a stunning look into his artistic process and his late style. It is, once again, a full-length portrait, with the top half, which is further along in completion, showing a rosy-cheeked Ria positioned at an angle but with her head turned forward to look the viewer in the eye.
Most of her body remains a rough charcoal sketch of swirls and doodles, but parts of the floral tapestry that make up the backdrop are finished. It is a riot of color and ornamental detailing that was characteristic of his most modern works that made up the last period of his career.
“Klimt’s associating of women with flowers, perhaps at its most poignant in this work in which he has evidently sought to portray his deceased subject as the most radiant bloom in a pictorial sea of flowers, also reveals much about the way he not only saw women but used them in his painting,” reads a piece on the work by Christie’s.
The flowers are not accurate depictions of natural blossoms but rather a dreamy take on their real-life inspirations, which, Christie’s says, points to the fact that this portrait and the other late-period paintings like it were “intended to be understood by the viewer as fantasy portraits.”
While unfinished, Klimt clearly was creating a masterpiece, one bookended by two deaths. But that’s not where the story of the Portrait of Ria Munk III ends.
Aranka Munk gained possession of the incomplete portrait of her daughter after Klimt’s death. She hung it in her lake house until 1941, when the Nazis seized her property and possessions and deported her to a concentration camp in Poland. On Nov. 26, 1941, Aranka died, a victim of the Holocaust.
In the meantime, the scoundrel who had been the cause of Ria’s misery had been becoming more rabidly nationalistic.
While Klimt was struggling to properly capture the woman Ewers had rejected, Ewers was becoming a German spy. During World War I, he was sent to Mexico and the United States to finagle information for the Fatherland and to work as a propagandist.
The secret agent life didn’t end quite so well for him. Ewers was arrested in the U.S. on June 16, 1918 and sent to Camp Oglethorpe in Georgia to spend the rest of the conflict as a prisoner of war.
He was released in 1919, and he returned to Germany to pick up his writing career where he had left off, continuing to produce novels, screenplays, and other works of criticism.
In the late 1920s, Ewers became an early supporter of Nazism. He wrote the official biography of Horst Wessel, a Nazi who was killed in a fight with Communists in Berlin and was promoted as a martyr for the party, and Ewers even met Hitler in 1931.
But his love affair with the Nazi Party didn’t remain mutual. In 1934, he fell out of favor over a difference of opinion and was labeled a degenerate. He died in 1943 having been banned for the better part of his last decade from publishing any work.
In the end, Ria prevailed—at least in oils. The Portrait of Ria Munk III, one of the last paintings Klimt ever did, made its way from the hands of the Gestapo to the possession of William Gurlitt, one of the most infamous Nazi collectors of stolen art, who donated it to a museum in Linz, Austria.
In June 2009, the heirs of the Munk family successfully fought for restitution and Klimt’s unfinished painting of Ria Munk returned to her family.
While Ewers’ work has forever been tainted by his Nazi affiliation, the last painting of Ria continues to be praised by art critics around the world. In 2010, the Portrait of Ria Munk III went up for auction. It sold for over $25 million.