The Painted Kiss

paintedcoverIn the tradition of The Girl with the Pearl Earring and The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, a beautiful, atmospheric, and sensual debut re-imagines the tempestuous relationship between painter Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge, the youngest daughter of a bourgeois businessman.

“In Elizabeth Hickey’s compelling novel of tempestuous lives amid the tawdry bohemia of artists’ studios and the glittering innuendo of Viennese café society, longing pulses from the page. The Painted Kiss is vivid, atmospheric, engaging, and very, very real.” –Susan Vreeland, author of Girl In Hyacinth Blue

“The Painted Kiss is richly atmospheric and haunting.” –Lauren Belfer, author of City of Light

Read an excerpt


Moving at a much more decorous pace, ”The Painted Kiss” tells the story of Emilie Floge, who is remembered today for one fact and one possibility: she was among Vienna’s most exclusive couturieres between the two world wars and she may have been the lover of the great Austrian artist Gustav Klimt. Although she is a real historical figure, so little is known about her personal life that Elizabeth Hickey is able to spend most of this first novel simply inventing her.

”The Painted Kiss” is an investigation of art and artifice. As a designer, Emilie is familiar with ”a million tricks of drape and cut.” Unfortunately for her, she is also very good at hiding her lifelong passion for Klimt, aroused in 1886 when she is just a schoolgirl and he is commissioned to paint her portrait. Emilie describes the sitting: ” ‘How do I look, Papa?’ I asked, wanting Klimt to hear me praised. Father set his paper aside and glanced over, but he barely seemed to see me.” A few lines later, though, it’s clear that Klimt needed little prompting: ”He was looking at me so closely that I blushed. . . . No one had ever looked at me like that before.”

Klimt remains a libertine, conducting a stream of affairs with models and rich patrons until his death, from pneumonia following a stroke, at 55. But Emilie never allows herself to become interested in another man. Still, his ultimate betrayal of her isn’t sexual. Viewing the finished version of his most famous painting, ”The Kiss,” in which she and Klimt had been the original couple, she discovers that he has substituted another figure for himself. ”He had painted me out, too,” she adds. ”The girl in the painting had a sweet, generic face. In vain I looked for my cheekbones, my strong jaw, my thin, wide mouth.”

Much has been made of Klimt’s last words — ”Send for Emilie” — but most art historians believe the pair weren’t lovers. Why, then, would this talented and beautiful woman sacrifice romance and passion, marriage and children, for a man who never openly declared his feelings for her — and why would she remain faithful to his memory for so many years after his death? ”The Painted Kiss” throws this mystery into stark relief…

–Dawn Drzal


*Starred Review* This first novel, which springs boldly to the reader’s attention as an admirably accomplished, beguilingly effortless story, is based on the lives of two actual historical figures. Hickey takes us back to the lush elegance of fin-de-siecle Vienna, “the most beautiful, cosmopolitan city in the world”–back to when the emperor still ruled divinely yet the arts were breaking old barriers. Gustav Klimt, a denizen of Viennese bohemia, has already made a painter’s name for himself when a well-to-do businessman commissions him to draw his young daughters’ portraits. Thus the lives of this permanent fixture in the world’s artistic firmament and his mistress-to-be, Emilie Floge, intersect. Alternating flash-forwards to mid-World War II, when the Old World truly crumbled and Klimt was long dead, frame the story with a perfect nostalgia for the novel’s “real” time: the beautifully expressed charting of the growing relationship between Klimt and Emilie, who eventually runs a fashion house in the Austrian capital and dresses all the ladies of the arts world. Hickey possesses a comfortably secure voice in sharing her understanding of the nature of this unsordid affair and her knowledge of the glamorous but teetering-on-the-edge time and place. Brad Hooper

Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved


A graceful imagining of the joined lives of a rising, soon-to-be-famous artist and a young woman in fin-de-siecle Vienna. At the beginning of art historian Hickey’s evocative debut novel, an old woman reflects on the madeleines she has brought to the mountains of Austria ahead of the advancing Red Army: “This was all I could bring from Vienna, Gustav’s drawings. He never thought much of them or took them seriously as art, they were preparatory, explanatory, they were plans, blueprints, mistakes.” In the fire of WWII they may also be the only things to survive of Gustav Klimt’s work, he himself having been dead and nearly forgotten for a generation. Hickey then turns the tale back to Emilie Floege’s girlhood, as her bourgeois father hires Klimt to paint a portrait of his daughter. Fast forward a few years, and, shades of Girl with a Pearl Earring, artist takes an interest in model as more than a vehicle for art, whereupon, Emilie recalls, “Gently he prised my lips apart and put his tongue inside.” By some accounts, the real Emilie was 12 when this happened, but Hickey wisely steers from treacherous shoals in this censorious time and assigns Emilie the age of 16 or 17. There’s little of prurient interest in these pages, though; Hickey is instead concerned to show Klimt’s influence on the young woman as a thinker and an artist, and soon Emilie has blossomed into a designer of local renown who is now a familiar in Viennese art circles, where much more scandalous things are always happening. Klimt’s relationship with Emilie – which inspired his famed painting The Kiss – is of profound importance to both, and Hickey treats it with care: as she writes, borrowing a page from real life, Klimt’s last word was his lover’s name, while years later, as Vienna burns, Emilie finds herself hoping against hope that some of the world she and Gustav knew will survive, though, she remarks, “I can realign myself to exist without certain works of art.” Lovely, if a little ornate-rather like Klimt’s work, in other words.


Hickey imagines the bonds between Gustav Klimt and his younger lover – whose name he pronounced with his dying breath -in her expressively written debut. Before Emilie Flvge became the owner of a successful Viennese fashion house and Klimt became a famed, controversial painter, she was a privileged 12-year-old reluctantly taking drawing lessons and he was her starving artist teacher. From her WWII hideaway in the Austrian countryside in 1944, where she has transported Gustav’s drawings (“all I could bring from Vienna… [perhaps] the only things of his to survive”), the aged Emilie flashes back to her fin-de-sihcle hometown. Hickey traces the changing relationship between Klimt and his protigi from when she first became his art student as an adolescent through their on-again, off-again romance as she matures to their complicated relationship that culminates in the famed painting The Kiss…Hickey’s language is sensual, lush and unhurried, and the prose wears its author’s research gracefully.


…Hickey must have done some incredible research to create her world of 1880s Vienna, and it shows. She knows that a young girl of the time would change from cambric to flannel nightgowns with the season, she knows what such a girl would eat for breakfast(coarse porridge) and that she would bathe her hands in buttermilk to keep them white. Yet the detail never feels superfluous, it’s as if we’re looking through Emilie’s eyes. As an art student and eventual fashion designer, it’s natural that she sees in such rich detail and we benefit accordingly.

…her relationship with the great painter twists in and out of her life like ribbons.She becomes a woman and an artist in her own right, and while Klimt’s effect on her never fades, she stands alone. A multi-colored, breathtaking read. – G.F.C.


Gustav Klimt was born on July 14, 1862 in Baumgarten, a suburb of Vienna. He was the second of seven children. His father was a gold engraver and the family was quite poor. In 1876 he was accepted to the Applied Art School of the Austrian Museum of Art and Industry. In subsequent years his brothers Ernst and Georg followed him at the school. Gustav and Ernst Klimt established a partnership with their fellow student Franz Matsch that was quite successful. Perhaps their best known commission was the series of paintings on the history of theater they did for the newly-constructed Burgtheater. The paintings were completed in 1888 and Klimt was awarded the Gold Cross of Merit by Emperor Franz Joseph.


In 1892 Ernst Klimt died, leaving behind a young wife (Emilie Floege’s sister Helene) and a daughter. Klimt’s partnership with Franz Matsch began to dissolve as his style evolved into something quite different than the academic work that had made his reputation. He and Matsch continued to work together on the commission for the ceiling panels of the Great Hall of the University, which would turn out to be Klimt’s most controversial work.

In 1897 Klimt, along with many of his friends, resigned from the artist’s organization, the Kunstlerhaus. They founded their own group, the Secession, with Klimt as president. The group’s goal was to reinvigorate Austrian art. The Secession published a journal, Ver Sacrum, held exhibitions of foreign as well as local artists, and designed a building to house their exhibitions. Beginning in 1897 Klimt spent every summer with the Floege family at their summer home on Lake Attersee.

The ceiling panels for the Great Hall of the University, Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence elicited a tremendous amount of attention in the press, much of it vitriolic. In 1900 the professors at the University voted overwhelmingly to reject them. The controversy continued for years, until Klimt finally resigned his commission in 1905. Klimt was nominated twice to become a professor at the Akademie, but was rejected both times, presumably because of these works.

Throughout his career Klimt painted many portraits of women. Most were members of the wealthy Jewish avant-garde: Serena Lederer, Margaret Stonborough-Wittgenstein (sister of the philosopher), Adele Bloch-Bauer, and Friederike Maria Beer. For his other, allegorical works he used models from the lower classes, many of whom became his lovers.

In 1902 Klimt exhibited his Beethoven frieze and painted Emilie Floege’s portrait. Her family disliked the painting and eventually sold it. In 1904 he painted the Stoclet frieze in the Josef Hoffmann-designed home of a wealthy Belgian businessman. In 1905 he resigned from the Secession. At the Kunstschau 1908 he exhibited The Kiss for the first time.

Klimt had a stroke on January 11, 1918 and died of pneumonia on February 6.




Gustav Klimt, The Kiss 1907-8


Gustav Klimt, Emilie Flöge at the age of seventeen 1891


Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer 1907


Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer II 1912

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