The Woman Within the Portrait: Ria & Mizzi

by | Mar 1, 2022 | Composer

Reflections on Lacy Rose’s cycles Ria (2018) and Hope I (2017)

Lacy Rose’s Ria and Hope I were performed as part of Portraits: The Self Illuminated. For more information about the program, including full recordings of both works, check out my projects.

Portrait of Gustav Klimt (1914) by Anton Josef Trčka

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)

Gustav Klimt was an Austrian painter and leader of the Vienna Secession, an artist collective who rebelled against what they viewed as nineteenth-century historicism in favor of an Art Nouveau style. With Klimt, the Art Nouveau style manifested itself in colorful, mosaic-like canvases, often populated by human figures, intertwined with one another in fluid and erotic positions. Although the Viennese establishment was scandalized by his “risqué” paintings and public murals, Klimt financed his career as portrait painter of the Viennese elite.

Within lush home interiors, Klimt’s portrait subjects peer out through the canvas, expressing elements of their personalities and desires through the artist’s “exoticizing” lens. He was particularly interested in women as portrait subjects, claiming, “I am less interested in myself as a subject for painting than I am in other people, above all women.” [1] These “interests” were sometimes romantic or sexual, and he had numerous relationships with the models of his works. It is claimed that, while he remained unmarried, Klimt fathered fourteen children with his partners.

Maria “Ria” Munk (1887-1911)

At 24 years of age, Maria (“Ria”) Munk committed suicide on December 28, 1911, after the poet and writer Hanns Heinz Ewers broke off their engagement. Her mother, Aranka Pulitzer Munk (1862-1941), wished to commission a death-bed portrait of her deceased daughter, a genre that was en vogue in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Since Ria’s sister, Serena Lederer, was a patron of Gustav Klimt, she arranged for the artist to paint her sister’s portrait. Ria Munk am Totenbett (Ria Munk I), or Ria Munk on her Deathbed, was finished in 1912 and subsequently rejected by Aranka Munk. She found the portrait too realistic and upsetting to view. Aranka decided that Ria should be depicted as youthful and joyful, as she was when living. Die Tänzerin (Ria Munk II), or The Dancer, followed, but was also rejected by the family. Their exact reasoning has never been revealed, but after their refusal of the painting, it is most likely that Klimt altered the original to resemble Johanna Jusl, a dancer at the Vienna Hofoper and an artist’s model.

Ria Munk am Totenbett (Ria Munk I) (1912) by Gustav Klimt
Die Tänzerin (Ria Munk II) (1916-1918) by Gustav Klimt
Frauenbildnis (Ria Munk III) (1917, Unfinished) by Gustav Klimt

Ria Munk’s final portrait, Frauenbildnis (Ria Munk III), or Woman’s Portrait, was left unfinished due to Klimt’s sudden death in 1917. In Ria Munk III, Ria is presented in profile, smiling, her cheeks slightly flushed, her body enveloped by the colorful patchwork interior behind her.  Bouquets of flowers, akin to her death-bed portrait, still frame her face.

The life of Ria Munk III, however, does not end with Klimt’s passing. Aranka Munk hung her daughter’s portrait at her villa, Bad Aussee, until the Nazis seized her family’s property in 1942. The Munk family was Jewish, and Aranka was deported to Lodz, a Nazi concentration camp in Poland, where she was murdered in 1942. That same year, Ria’s sister, Lola, was murdered at Chelmno in Poland.  

Frauenbildnis (Ria Munk III) was eventually passed to art collector and dealer William Gurlitt, who sold the painting in 1953 to the Lentos Museum in Linz, Austria. The painting remained at the museum until 2009, when the city council of Linz finally voted to return Ria Munk III to its rightful owners, the descendants of the Munk family. [2]

NYC-based composer and singer Lacy Rose (b. 1990) composed her cycle Ria for voice and string quartet to illuminate the personhood of Ria Munk as it evolves from portrait to portrait. In describing the narrative flow of Ria (with text that she herself wrote), Rose writes:

The first movement begins inside the painting, “Ria Munk I,” with Ria asking her bereaved to “close and coin her eyes.” In the second movement, inspired by “Ria Munk II” (also known as “The Dancer”), the woman “who holds the marigolds with swan-soft hands” asks the spectator to ponder her double identity and origin of inspiration. For the third movement, the unfinished figure in Ria Munk III exclaims that she “begins and ends in death.” [3]


Ria Munk II, from Ria by Lacy Rose

Christopher Ciampoli, violin
William Weijia Wang, violin
Flavia Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola
Alexander Cousins, cello

Maria “Mizzi” Zimmermann (1879-1975)

Schubert at the Piano (1899) by Gustav Klimt, destroyed by the Nazis in 1945
Hope I (1903) by Gustav Klimt

Maria “Mizzi” Zimmermann 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. Mizzi posed for many of Klimt’s paintings as a model. Since she often appeared as an unnamed representation, Mizzi occupied a less publicly visible role in Klimt’s creative process than his wealthier portrait subjects.

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, perform. Zimmermann and Klimt had two sons, 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 benefited from the sale of his works posthumously, even though her body and likeness were frequently represented. [4]

Mizzi’s relationship to Hope I (1903), however, is not as direct as the painting may suggest. Indeed, she was not the actual model for this painting, although she was heavily pregnant and gave birth to Otto during the period of its creation. Instead, the model Herma, 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’s images, removing its male figure. Instead, Hope stands alone with her baby, still surrounded by a halo of light, but now menaced by skeletons and ghouls behind her. She is either unafraid, or unaware of these deathly forces.

Lacy Rose writes of her impetus to compose the cycle Hope I for voice, string quartet, and piano:

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. [5]


Hope III, from Hope I by Lacy Rose
Eunchan Kim, piano
Christopher Ciampoli, violin
William Weijia Wang, violin
Flavia Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola
Alexander Cousins, cello

As we encountered the three Ria Munks in Ria, in Rose’s Hope I, we now meet several versions of Mizzi, all through the lens of portraiture. In the first movement, an elderly Mizzi reflects on the painting that she once inspired. The second movement derives from the perspective of the woman inside the painting, another version of Mizzi who describes the demons that surround her. The final movement is drawn from Mizzi herself, who pleads with the spectator to truly see her and free her from the painting.


  1. Alexxa Gotthardt, “What You Need to Know about Gustav Klimt.” March 26, 2018.
  2. Allison McNearney, “How Gustav Klimt’s Unfinished ‘Ria Munk III’ Finally Escaped the Nazis.” Daily Beast. Updated April 7, 2018.
  3. Lacy Rose, Liner Notes to Ria. Released by Lacy Rose, 2018.
  4. Georg Markus, „Sensationeller Fund: Klimts Geliebte spricht.“ Kurier. January 1, 2018. Accessed November 21, 2019.
  5. Lacy Rose. Liner Notes to Mizzi. Released by Lacy Rose. 2017.