Maria “Mizzi” Zimmermann (1879-1975) was an artist’s model and romantic partner of Gustav Klimt. In 1887, at 18 years old, she first met Klimt, then 35 years old, in passing on the street, and their professional and romantic relationship began soon afterwards. She posed for many of his paintings as a model, a less “visible” role in the artistic process than Klimt’s wealthier, female portrait subjects, since she often appeared unnamed. In Klimt’s Schubert at the Piano, a painting commissioned by Greek industrialist Nikolaus Dumba in 1898, we find Mizzi standing at the far left of the canvas, illuminated by candlelight, intently watching Franz Schubert, Klimt’s favorite composer, play, her likeness represented as one of the guests at the salon gathering.
Zimmermann and Klimt had two sons together, Gustav (1889-1976) and Otto, who was born in 1902, and died within the same year. While Klimt lived a modest lifestyle as a freelance artist, he rented Mizzi and their children a small apartment. When their relationship ended, he provided financially for his son, Gustav, until his death. Klimt left Maria Zimmerman a small sum in his will, but he did not legally identify any of his children as heirs. Although she lived to be 96 years old, Mizzi never owned a single painting by Klimt or benefitted from the sale of his works posthumously, even though her body and likeness were frequently represented.
Schubert at the Piano (1899)
Her relationship to Hope I (1903), however, is not as direct as the painting may suggest. Indeed, Mizzi was not the actual model for this painting, although she was pregnant and gave birth to Otto during the period that Klimt painted the work. Instead, Herma, an artist's model who is known to history only by her first name, represents Hope with the promise of new life within her. Mizzi’s “essence,” though, pervades the painting through historical speculation. Originally, Klimt sketched a male figure in the painting, comforting Hope. After Otto’s death, he re-configured the painting, removing the male figure. Instead, Hope stands alone with her baby, still surrounded by a halo of light, but now menaced by the skeletons and ghouls behind her. Hope, however, does not seem to be afraid, or perhaps, she cannot yet see the deathly forces beside her.
Composer Lacy Rose writes of her impetus to compose the song cycle Hope I, “Mizzi represents so many of the women in the paintings whose names and lives are lost to time but whose images are immortalized by the painters, often male painters whose names we still remember. For me, I felt it my duty to help Mizzi reclaim her personhood… This is the story of Maria ‘Mizzi’ Zimmermann. The first movement shows Mizzi as an old lady after the passing of Gustav Klimt and rediscovering the painting she helped inspire. The second movement is written from her perspective inside the painting as Mizzi describes what she sees. And the third movement is Mizzi seeing the spectator and asking the viewer to take her out of the painting.”