Lilly Berger 1907

Full-length portrait standing, head slightly tilted, looking at the viewer. The sitter is nude except for a transparent black veil and poses in front of a rich interior: marble fireplace with decorative objects (silver goblet, wooden mask in dried flower wreath, porcelain) and a white caftan draped on a chair, a glass vase with a slender neck on top.

JQAW# P_1907_050
Oil on canvas 185 x 140 cm
Signature: John Quincy Ɑdams. 197 (0 and 7 painted on top of each other)
Hungarian National Gallery Budapest Inv.#299.B

Lilly (Lydia) Berger, 18.2.1883 Vienna to ca. 29.4.1942 Lublin/Sobibor (Shoa); also Lydia Hernfeld (Herrnfeld), after 1924 Lydia Roth; solo dancer at the Vienna Court Opera and much portrayed Viennese beauty.
Daughter of Samuel Hernfeld (Herrnfeld) (1843-1925) and Josefine H., née Mandel, remarried Berger (1855-1905). From the first marriage there are 5 children (Lydia and four brothers). The parents divorced in 1889 (in the monarchy divorce was de facto impossible for Catholics, a restriction that did not apply to other religious affiliations such as Protestants and Jews). The mother remarried to Jakob Berger (1849-1903), from this 2nd marriage three children: a half-brother as well as the half-sisters Olga B., married Dirsztay de Dirsztay (1883-1962), and Emma B., married Kühtreiber (1885-1917).

Lydia, who takes the stage name Berger, Olga and Emma attend the ballet school of the Court Opera and are accepted into the ensemble: Olga in 1899, Lydia and Emma in 1901 (documented performances of Emma only from 1908). They become known as "Berger Girls" and become popular because of their "beauty, grace and Viennese charm" (Riki Raab, Hist. Jahrbuch Wien 1972, p. 203). In the period 1901-1911, Lydia Berger appeared in almost 1000 performances at the Vienna Court Opera in operas including Carmen (G. Bizet), Fledermaus (J. Strauss), and Lakmé (L. Delibes), and in the ballets Cinderella (J. Strauss) , Coppelia (L. Delibes), Excelsior (R. Marenco), and Lazy Hans (O. Nebdal), among many others (see the archive of the Vienna State Opera).
Artistic differences (Lydia finds the ballet direction of the Court Opera too conservative) lead to a sensational short-term work stoppage in 1911 (a newspaper -Das Interessante Blatt 9.11.1911 p.22- writes of a "strike"). As a result, Olga and Lydia leave the Court Opera. Lydia has a brief second career in expressive dance performing in Germany with Grete Wiesenthal (who has also left the Court Opera) in Hugo von Hoffmannthal's Amor and Psyche in Berlin in 1911, but does not pursue this career further. From 1912 on-wards she lives in Vienna as a well-supported private and Court Opera pensioner. Olga marries Baron Franz Jacob Dirsztay de Dirsztay in 1911 and leads an upper-middle-class life in Vienna. She survived the Nazi period in exile with her daughter in London and returned to Vienna around 1960, where she soon died (1962) (Riki Raab, Hist. Jahrbuch Wien 1972, p. 203). Emma left the Court Opera in 1913 to marry the painter Albert Conrad Kühtreiber (later known by his artist name Albert Paris Gütersloh). She died young in 1917 due to complications following the birth of her daughter in 1915.

Probably as early as around 1911/1912, Lilly Berger entered into a relationship with the married industrialist Emil Roth (1868-1954). The latter, together with his brother Karl Roth (1867-1930) (the brothers became ultimately enemies), was heir to and partner in the company founded by their father Georg (Georges) Roth ("Kapselroth" 1834-1903), which operated a machine factory including steelworks and iron foundry in Vienna Landstrasse and also a munitions factory in Lichtenwörth, Lower Austria. Already around 1910 and especially during the First World War, Roth was the largest munitions factory in Europe with up to 15,000 employees in 1914-18. After the war, the conversion to civilian products was not successful, and the company went into liquidation in 1929. Despite this decline, however, considerable assets remained, including a castle-like villa on Lake Grundel (used as a private residence by the Josef Goebbels family during the Nazi era). In 1916 Lilly gave birth to a son: Georg Roth. After the death of Emil Roth's wife in 1917, there are nevertheless no sources indicating that Emil Roth married Lilly Berger. In 1924, Lydia Berger/Hernfeld adopted the name Roth with the approval of the Vienna Magistrate.
In 1912, Lilly Berger acquired a feudal villa in Vienna’s Neuwaldegg area (Artariagasse 5), which still exists today. In 1913, she acquired a large adjoining plot of land (today developed with municipal buildings). In the same year she objected to the income tax return of the tax office and a public hearing took place, where her financial dealings as a very wealthy woman became apparent. The tax office estimated her wealth at 300,000 crowns and her annual income at 13,600 crowns, of which 12,000 crowns was income from property and 1,600 crowns from her pension from the court opera. (During her active period as a solo dancer and mimic of the Court Opera, her salary was 3,600 crowns annually, Riki Raab, 1972, p. 203.) Particularly controversial in the tax proceedings was her ownership of an electric automobile, making Lilly Berger an early female automobile pioneer, which was interpreted by the tax authorities as a sign of her "upscale lifestyle." Lilly's objection to the tax assessment was not upheld (Neues Wiener Tagblatt 10.4.1913, p. 17). Her fortune, which amounted to about 10 times her total income for her entire career at the court opera, indicates that she received donations from third parties (likely from Emil Roth).

Despite the postwar inflation, Lilly Berger can thus be considered well-to-do, which makes her tragic fate as a Shoa victim all the more puzzling. Apparently, she failed to seek safety in exile in 1938 (for example, with her sister in London). In 1939, a heavy blow of fate hits her. Her son Dr. Georg Roth, together with his fiancée Trude "Notschi" Kuntner, commits a spectacular double suicide in the Roth Villa on Lake Grundel on September 5, 1939, probably out of despair over the racial persecution he was subjected to because of his Jewish mother Lydia (who, however, had already left Judaism in 1901).
Lydia/Lilly Roth was arrested on the street in the spring of 1942 (whether by chance or after denunciation is unknown) and deported to Ibica on 27.4. 1942. Her train arrives on 29.4.1942 in Wlodawa, 7 km from the Sobibor concentration camp. There she is murdered shortly after (see her entry in the Yad Vashem database).

The portrait of Lilly Berger is captivating both for its daring depiction, which more unveils than conceals, the prominence of the sitter, and for the formally successful depiction, which juxtaposes the de facto nude with an opulently sumptuous interior (Adam's studio at Theresianumgasse 5). The painting was exhibited in the autumn exhibition of the Künstlerhaus Vienna in 1907 (KH EL Vol.51 #3464) and surprisingly was only briefly mentioned in a single newspaper note. The so-called trust price (the artist's asking price) was a whopping 12,000 crowns. The painting sold at the exhibition. It was purchased either directly or through a middle-man by Count Dénes Andrássy (1835-1913) for his exceptional contemporary art collection (incl. works by Böcklin, Keller, Stuck und von Uhde) and displayed in his private art museum at Krásna Hôrka (today in Slovakia) castle. In his will Count Andrássy bequeathed the painting together with his collection to the Museum of Fine Arts Budapest, where it resides since 1913, but is listed only as "Lilly".

Note: Biographical data courtesy of Ms. Traude Triebel. The findings of recent provenance research have been kindly communicated by Bianka Boda, Museum of Fine Arts, Hungarian National Gallery Budapest.


Künstlerhaus Vienna Fall Exhibition 1907
(KH EL Vol 51 1907/08 #3464).


APH, catalog raisonné JQA 1995, p. 79, cat.#48, fig.#33.


1907-1913 Count Dénes Andrássy, Krásna Hôrka (SK) castle.
1913 bequeathed in his will to the Museum of Fine Arts Budapest.
Museum of Fine Arts, Hungarian National Gallery Budapest Inv.#299.B