Flöge, Emilie (1874–1952)

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Flöge, Emilie (1874–1952)

Austrian fashion designer, owner and manager with her sisters of one of Vienna's leading fashion salons, who was immortalized in Gustav Klimt's stunning Art Nouveau. Name variations: Emilie Floege; Emilie Floge. Born Emilie Louise Flöge in Vienna, Austria, on August 30, 1874; died in Vienna on May 26, 1952; daughter of Hermann Flöge and Barbara Flöge; sister of Helene Flöge Klimt, Pauline Flöge, and Hermann Flöge.

For over ten years, considered the most important person in the life of artist Gustav Klimt (1897–1918); with sisters, owned and managed one of Vienna's leading fashion salons (c. 1910–1938); portrayed in Klimt's Art Nouveau (1902).

One of the most remarkable women of finde-siècle Vienna, Emilie Flöge was born into a Viennese artisan family that had only recently ascended the ladder of social respectability. Her father Hermann was a master turner who had founded a firm that exported Meerschaum pipes, mostly to the British market. In 1892, barely 18, Emilie first met the man who would make the strongest mark on her life, the artist Gustav Klimt. Twelve years older and already a successful artist, Klimt met Emilie because his brother Ernst, also a talented painter, was married to Emilie's sister Helene Flöge Klimt . Ernst Klimt died at the age of 28 in 1892, leaving behind a pregnant widow. Gustav extended generous assistance to his sister-in-law and her infant daughter. In 1895, Klimt chose the strikingly attractive Emilie as a model in one of his works, the ceiling painting Hanswurst at the Fair, a composition that had been begun but not completed by his late brother Ernst.

By 1897, Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt had become inseparable, and most Viennese close to the couple assumed that she had in fact become his mistress. While there can be no doubt that the couple were passionately attached emotionally, and would spend countless hours in each other's company over the next two decades, some scholars have raised the possibility that their relationship always remained platonic. Klimt's strong physical attraction to a large number of women other than Flöge is,

however, an undisputed fact; he had innumerable liaisons with artists' models and other young women and by the time of his death in 1918 was alleged to have fathered no less than 14 children.

Starting around 1898, Klimt and Emilie spent their summer vacations together at the Flöge family villa near the village of Weissenbach on the Attersee in Upper Austria. Inspired both by the presence of his beloved Emilie and the breathtaking scenery of the lake, Klimt began to paint landscapes, either of the area around Weissenbach or of nearby Unterach, where other relatives of Emilie also spent their summers. Of Klimt's 225 known paintings, there are 54 landscapes, and most of these depict the area around the Attersee. In the closing decades of the 20th century, Gustav Klimt's paintings had become incredibly popular—and expensive. With very few of his works remaining in private hands, they fetched fabulous amounts whenever they came up for auction. On one such occasion, in October 1997, his 1909 depiction of a romantic villa, Schloss Kammer am Attersee II, sold for an astonishing £14.5 million at Christie's in London. The four other paintings from the highly praised series are to be found hanging in the national art galleries of Prague and Vienna.

Although Emilie Flöge often served to inspire Klimt, particularly during the summer months when they could be together for an extended period of time, he only rarely painted his beloved. When she was 17, he had painted her looking dreamy and rather withdrawn. In Art Nouveau, Klimt's famous 1902 portrait of Emilie, she is depicted with much greater psychological complexity. Unlike many of his commissioned portraits in which the woman wears a white tea gown, here Emilie wears a stunning bright blue dress ornamented with gold and silver. Appearing confident and determined, she has her hand on her hip to create a memorable and eye-catching composition. First exhibited in 1903 at Vienna's Secession, Art Nouveau was popular with the public but neither Klimt nor Emilie liked the portrait. In 1908, it was sold to the Historical Museum of the City of Vienna, where it still hangs to delight countless visitors every year.

Along with her sisters Helene and Pauline Flöge , Emilie served several years of apprenticeship, finally obtaining her master diploma in dressmaking. Encouraged by their father and assisted financially by their brother Hermann, the three sisters set up a fashion shop registered under the name "Schwestern Flöge" (Flöge Sisters). This was at a time when few Austrian women ventured into the world of commerce, but the Flöge establishment, located at the Casa Piccola at Mariahilferstrasse 1c, soon began to prosper. Upon entering the Flöge sisters' shop, Vienna's elite women found themselves in a stunning reception room decorated in art nouveau style by the Wiener Werkstätte, the innovative crafts guild headed by the painter and designer Koloman Moser and the architect Josef Hoffmann. In the years just before 1914, the clientele of Schwestern Flöge included most of the cream of Vienna's stylish women. A sign of their shop's popularity with Viennese upper crust was the fact that Emilie and her sisters employed as many as eighty seamstresses and three cutters.

The success of the Flöge sisters' business resulted in the entire first floor of the Casa Piccola eventually being used by their flourishing enterprise. While the reception room was in a striking black-and-white design, the walls of the next room were covered in felt. Samples of embroidery and lace were displayed in vitrines situated between the windows. The collapse of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918, and the ensuing years of impoverishment that gripped Vienna, represented a severe economic test for Emilie Flöge and her sisters, but they displayed remarkable business skills and were able to survive into a new era in which the pre-1914 world of aristocracy and Grossbürgertum became a vanished epoch of elegance and leisure.

Despite the horrific inflation of the early 1920s and the depression of the 1930s, Schwestern Flöge was able to remain in business. Although no longer as wealthy as they had once been, many customers remained loyal to an establishment that signified stylishness often raised to the level of art. Only with the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany in March 1938, was the venerable shop forced to close down. With the loss of their Jewish clientele, Emilie and her sisters could no longer remain in business. The new Nazi rulers of Vienna regarded the shop as a symbol of an undesirable decadent era dominated by cosmopolitan Jews and haughty aristocrats, and were pleased when it expired.

Emilie Flöge's haute couture shop was shuttered forever in 1938; in many ways, her personal ambitions had died two decades earlier. On January 11, 1918, Gustav Klimt was struck down by a stroke. The first recognizable words that he was able to utter were "Die Emilie soll kommen" ("Emilie must come"). After Klimt's death from pneumonia on February 6, 1918, Emilie collected her letters to him, burning several laundry baskets full. But she never forgot their love for each other, and after the closure of her business, she retained a small room looking onto a courtyard at the Casa Piccola, turning it into a private and intimate museum in which the furnishings of Klimt's studio were kept. Emilie Flöge never wrote her memoirs, but despite the paucity of sources historians have been able to reconstruct the story of her powerful influence as the muse of one of fin-de-siècle Vienna's greatest artists. Among the last survivors from an utterly vanished world, she died in Vienna on May 26, 1952.


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Emilie Flöge, und Gustav Klimt: Doppelporträt in Ideal-landschaft: 112. Sonderausstellung des Historischen Museums der Stadt Wien, Hermesvilla, Lainzer Tiergarten, 30. April 1988 bis 28. February 1989. Vienna: Das Museum, 1988.

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Powell, Nicolas. "Emilie Flöge and her Lover Gustav Klimt," in Apollo. Vol. 116, no. 246. August 1982, pp. 112–114.

Schorske, Carl E. Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.

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John Haag , Assistant Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia