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Dancer and Venditti muse Laura Howard gets crash course in Klimt

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Over the years, dancers have inspired painters from Degas to Dali, so it seems only natural that when realist Daniel Venditti needed a muse for a project at the Franklin Shops he put out a call to Dance Bochette's Laura Howard, who he'd sketched a handful of times before. But Howard did not pose as a ballerina or modern dancer in the Franklin Shop windows this weekend. Instead, she assumed the persona of the Austrian Mona Lisa.

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Venditti is one of three artists who've been invited by the Franklin Shops on First to convert a ground floor fitting room into a mini-art gallery that their customers can enjoy while they are trying on fashions. Inside, Venditti's created a sensuous, seductive boudoir in which patrons can celebrate how their selections enhance their beauty, style and personality. Presiding over the interior space is Venditti's salacious Red Queen and a medley of equally indulgent paintings and prints. But for the door to the fitting room, only a symbol of elegant high couture would do. So Venditti chose to do a portrait of a beautiful, lithe dancer in the tradition of Gustav Klimt, whose erotic, gold-gilded portraits remain among the most recognized works of art in all the world.

When he first approached her, Howard was not really familiar with Klimt or his body of work. "I worked as an au pair in Milan last summer," Laura confides, "and had the chance to visit museums and artistic landmarks on weekends and during my free time." That gave her the unparalleled opportunity to experience the painters of the High Renaissance, and beyond. But as Klimt was Austrian, he was not one of the artists she chanced upon during her forays into the cultural landscape of Milan, Florence, Venice and Rome.

Although Laura came to the weekend's modelling sessions with few pre-conceived notions, she quickly received a crash course not only in Klimt, but in his muse for the Austrian Mona Lisa, the Viennese-born Adele Bloch Bauer, who married banker and sugar magnate, Ferdinand Bloch Bauer, at the tender age of just 17. Klimt was an icon - the Dali or Warhol of his day - and Adele wanted one of his gold leaf paintings that were the rage at the time. So she cajoled her wealthy husband into commissioning the artist to paint her portrait. Klimt completed the painting three years and hundreds of sketches later, prompting rumors among Vienna's social elite that the two were having a torrid affair.

Whether they did or didn't, Adele was the only socialite that Klimt painted twice, rendering his Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer II five years later in 1912. She also served as the model for his two depictions of Judith. For more than a decade after that, the Bloch Bauers remained entrenched in Klimt's inner circle, which also include Sigmund Freud and composer Arnold Schoenberg. And in addition to the two portraits of Adele, the Bloch Bauers purchased four of Klimt's landscapes as well. But their patronage ended when Adele died of meningitis on January 24, 1925 at the age of 44.

And that's when things get interesting. Adele left a will in which she asked her husband to donate the six Klimts to the Austrian Gallery following his death. But 13 years later, Germany annexed Austria, which became a willing if not eager participant in the Holocaust. Being Jewish, Ferdinand Bloch Bauer fled Austria, but had to leave the Klimts behind. The Nazis confiscated them, prompting Ferdinand to bequeath the paintings to his nieces and nephews in 1945, even though he no longer had them in his possession. Even though most of the art that the Nazis looted was returned to their rightful owners after the war (as the new George Clooney movie, The Monuments Men, chronicles), the Austrian government claimed ownership under Adele Bloch Bauer's will and refused to give the paintings to Ferdinand's heir until a groundbreaking ruling by the United States Supreme Court in 2004.

During the intervening span, Austrians had come to regard the Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I as their version of the Mona Lisa, and they abhorred the Austrian government's decision to turn over the painting to Ferdinand Bloch Bauer's heirs. The Austrians were incensed when the heir turned around and sold the painting two years later to Ronald Lauder for the then-record price of $135 million. To add insult to injury, the heirs also sold Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer II at auction a few months later for $88 million, the third highest price paid for a piece of art at auction at that time.

Now, the Florida Gulf Coast University sophomore will be tied to Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer I, at least in the minds and hearts of patrons of The Franklin Shops on First who have occasion to use Fitting Room 3. When asked how she feels about people seeing her enigmatic smile on the door to the fitting room, "it's kind weird, but in a good way," Laura was quick to respond. "And what if people start to come up to you and ask, 'Are you the girl on the Franklin Shops' door?'," Laura wrinkled her porcelain nose, gently shaking her curly brunette trusses in horror at the thought of it. For now, she is content to wow Dance Bochette audiences with her prowess in ballet and creativity as a modern dancer. But even Laura has to confess that she likes the way that Dan Venditti captured her likeness on the fitting room door.

"It will be kinda cool to have people look at my portrait and wonder what I was thinking and why I'm half-smiling like that," she reluctantly concedes. But she won't volunteer answers to either of those questions. "That's what draws you into the painting," interjects Dan Venditti. "It's what keeps the painting fresh and new." So the last thing that either artist or muse wants to do is give us the solution to the age-old riddle, What was the Mona Lisa - or Laura Howard - really smiling about?

The Franklin Shops on First are located at 2200 First Street, in the heart of the downtown Fort Myers River District. For more information, please telephone 239-333-3130 or visit http://thefranklinshops.com/.

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