Thursday, August 26, 2010

Egon Schiele

Anonymous, Portrait of Egon Schiele, 1915

Egon Schiele (1890-1918) was born in Tulln, Austria. His father, Adolph Schiele, worked for the Austrian State Railways as a station master, his mother, Marie Soukup(ová), was from Krumau, (today Český Krumlov) in Bohemia. Since there was no suitable school at Tulln, Schiele was sent away in 1901, first to Krems, then to Klosterneuburg near Vienna. In 1904 the whole family followed him there because of his father's deteriorating health. Adolf Schiele's condition soon degenerated into madness, and in the following year he died, aged fifty-four from syphillis. Egon became a ward of his maternal uncle.

 Egon Schiele, Dead Mother, 1910

Schiele later felt that he had had a special relationship with his father. In 1913 he wrote to his brother-in-law: "I don't know whether there is anyone else at all who remembers my noble father with such sadness. I don't know who is able to understand why I visit those places where my father used to be and where I can feel the pain." On the other hand, he disliked his mother because he felt she did not mourn for his father enough, or give her son the attention he deserved: "My mother is a very strange woman. She doesn't understand me in the least and doesn't love me much either. If she had either love or understanding she would be prepared to make sacrifices."

 Egon Schiele, Gerti Schiele in Plaid Dress, 1909

Schiele's emotions were directed into an intense relationship with his younger sister Gerti, (above), which was not without incestuous implications. In 1906, when he was sixteen and she was twelve, he took her by train all the way to Trieste. The same year, Schiele applied at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) in Vienna, where Gustav Klimt had once studied. Perhaps those in charge scented a troublesome pupil - in any case they sent him on to the more traditional Academy of Fine Arts. Schiele duly passed the entrance examination, and was admitted as one of the youngest students ever. The next year he visited his idol, Klimt, to show him some of his drawings. Did they show talent? "Yes", Klimt replied, "much too much!"

 Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt in blue smock, 1913

Klimt took a particular interest in Schiele, buying his drawings, arranging models for him and introducing him to potential patrons. He also introduced Schiele to the Wiener Werkstätte, the arts and crafts workshop connected with the Vienna Secession. Schiele left the Academy in 1909, after completing his third year, and founded the Neukunstgruppe ("New Art Group") with other dissatisfied students. Klimt invited Schiele to exhibit at the 1909 Vienna Kunstschau, where he encountered the work of Edvard Munch, Jan Toorop, and Vincent van Gogh.

 Anonymous, Egon Schiele, 1914

Schiele found a flat and a studio and set up on his own. At this time he showed a strong interest in children, especially young girls, who were often the subjects of his drawings. Albert Paris Gütersloh, a young artist who was Schiele's friend, remembered that the establishment was overrun with them: "They slept, lazily hung around, combed their hair, pulled their dresses up or down, did up or undid their shoes, like animals in a cage which suits them, they were left to their own." Schiele made many drawings from these young models, some of which were extremely erotic. 

 Egon Schiele, Girl Putting on Shoe, 1910 

Schiele was also fascinated by his own appearance, and produced self-portraits in large numbers. He impressed not only himself, but others with whom he came into contact. The writer Arthur Rössler (below), one of Schiele's staunchest promoters, wrote about him: "Even in the presence of well known men of imposing appearance, Schiele's unusual looks stood out. He had a tall, slim, supple figure with narrow shoulders, long arms and long-fingered bony hands. His face was sunburned, beardless, and surrounded by long, dark, unruly hair. His broad, angular forehead was furrowed by horizontal lines. The features of his face were usually fixed in an earnest, almost sad expression, as though caused by pains which made him weep inwardly."

 Egon Schiele, Portrait of Arthur Rössler, 1910

In 1911, Schiele met the seventeen-year-old Wally Neuzil, who lived with him in Vienna and served as model for some of his most striking paintings. Very little is known of her, except that she had previously modelled for Gustav Klimt. Schiele and Wally wanted to escape what they perceived as the claustrophobic Viennese milieu, and went to his mother's birth town, Český Krumlov in southern Bohemia. Despite Schiele's family connections, he and his lover were driven out of town by the residents, who strongly disapproved of their lifestyle. Today, Český Krumlov is the site of a museum dedicated to Schiele

Egon Schiele, Krumau an der Moldau [Český Krumlov], 1913

Schiele and Wally Neuzil then  moved to Neulengbach, near Vienna. As it was in the capital, Schiele's studio became a gathering place for Neulengbach's delinquent children. Schiele's way of life again aroused much animosity among the town's inhabitants, and in April 1912 he was arrested for seducing a young girl below the age of consent. When they came to his studio to place him under arrest, the police seized more than a hundred drawings which they considered pornographic. 

 Egon Schiele, Cardinal and Nun (Tenderness), 1912

When his case was brought to court, the charges of seduction were dropped, but Schiele was found guilty of exhibiting erotic drawings in a place accessible to children. In court, the judge burned one of the offending drawings over a candle flame.The twenty-one days he had already spent in custody were taken into account, and Schiele was sentenced to three days' imprisonment in St. Pölten. While in prison, Schiele created a series of 12 paintings - among them Death and Girl (below) - and remarked: "To restrain an artist is a crime, it means to kill life! I will carry on for my art and for my lover."

Egon Schiele, Death and Girl [Schiele and Wally Neuziel], 1912

The Neulengbach affair had no effect on Schiele's career: In 1912, he was invited to show at the Sonderbund exhibition in Cologne, and he was also taken on by the famous art dealer Hans Goltz of Munich. The year 1915 marked a turning-point in Schiele's life. He met two girls, Edith and Adele Harms, who lived opposite his studio in Vienna. Schiele was attracted to both of them, but eventually fixed his sights on Edith. In February 1915, Schiele wrote a note to his friend Arthur Rössler stating: "I intend to get married advantageously, perhaps not to Wally." 

 Egon Schiele, Portrait of Wally, 1912

By April 1915 Schiele was engaged to Edith, and Wally Neuzil was rather cold-bloodedly dismissed. Schiele's last meeting with Wally took place at the Café Eichberger, where he played billiards nearly every day. He handed her a letter in which he proposed that, despite their parting, they take a holiday together every summer - without Edith. Wally refused. During the First World War, she joined the Red Cross as a nurse and died of scarlet fever in a military hospital near Split in Dalmatia just before Christmas 1917. Schiele and Edith were married, despite her family's opposition, in June 1915.

 Egon Schiele, Portrait of Edith Schiele, 1918

World War I now began to shape Schiele's life and work. Three days after his wedding, Schiele was ordered to report for active service in the army. He was initially stationed in Prague. In the army, Schiele never saw any fighting at the front, and was able to continue painting and sketching while guarding Russian prisoners of war, and doing light guard duties. By 1917, he was back in Vienna, able to focus on his artistic career. His output was prolific. He was now thought of as the leading Austrian artist of the younger generation.

 Egon Schiele, Poster for the Vienna Secession's 49th exhibition, 1918

Schiele was asked to take part in a government-sponsored exhibition in Stockholm and Copenhagen intended to improve Austria's image with the neutral Scandinavian powers. He was also invited to participate in the Secession's 49th exhibition, held in Vienna in 1918. Schiele had fifty works accepted for this exhibition, and they were displayed in the main hall. He designed a poster for the exhibition (above), which was reminiscent of the Last Supper, with a portrait of himself in the place of Christ. The show was a triumphant success, and as a result, prices for Schiele's works increased considerably. During the same year, he also had successful shows in Zürich, Prague, and Dresden.

 Martha Fein, Egon Schiele's  Death Bed, 1918

Schiele and Edith moved to a new and grander house and studio. Their pleasure in it was brief. In the autumn of 1918, the Spanish flu epidemic that claimed more than 20 million lives in Europe reached Vienna. Edith, who was six months pregnant, succumbed to the disease on 28 October. Schiele died only three days after his wife. He was 28 years old. During the three days between their deaths, Schiele drew a few sketches of Edith. These were his last works.You can see a timeline of Schiele's work in my Flickr set.


  1. Thank you. I appreciated this article and information on Egon Schiele. I have just discovered his art.

  2. How is his name pronounced; is it SHEE-LAY, SHEE-LA, OR SHEE-LEE? Please let me know. Thank you, John.

  3. I think it is SHEELER or SHEE-LA depending on your accent!