Schiele, Egon

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SCHIELE, EGON (1890–1918), Austrian painter.

At the time of his death at age twenty-eight, Egon Schiele was considered Austria's preeminent artist. In 1910 a collector of Schiele's works observed that his "powerful originality at first repels, all the more later to captivate." His paintings and drawings of explicitly erotic nudes, including children, still have the power to disturb. An exhibition of his works was censored in the United States as recently as 1960.

Schiele's father, Adolf, of German Protestant background, served as stationmaster of a major railway junction at Tulln, eighteen miles outside of Vienna. Egon's mother, Marie Soukup Schiele, was educated in a Viennese convent. Adolf contracted syphilis from a prostitute at about the time of his marriage. Marie's first three children were stillborn, probably as a result of the disease, but eventually she gave birth to two healthy girls and a boy, Egon. (A third daughter, Elvira, died at age ten.) Adolf, who refused to seek medical treatment, entered the terminal stages of syphilis in 1902, when Egon was twelve, developing hallucinations and becoming so irrational that he burned the family's railroad bonds. His death marked the young Egon, who came to view love and death as inexorably intertwined.

Schiele showed a great gift for drawing at an early age. Despite the disapproval of his family, he spent hours outside drawing from nature, neglecting his academic studies. He could capture the essence of an object extremely quickly, in a few deft strokes, and took pencil and paper everywhere. He gained admittance to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna at age sixteen, the youngest student ever admitted. Schiele found study at the academy rigid and withdrew three years later.

In about 1907 Schiele met Gustav Klimt. The older artist encouraged Schiele's career, and for a time the younger artist borrowed motifs from Klimt's oeuvre. After a few years Schiele forsook Klimt's art nouveau style in favor of expressionism, which emphasized the artist's emotional reaction to his subject. He used unnatural colors to express emotional content in such paintings as Self-Portrait with Hand to Cheek (1910). Schiele portrayed himself, often naked, in many exaggerated self-portraits. His masterful use of line to portray a subject's character is evident in his minimalist watercolor portraits of this period.

With the decline in public commissions in Vienna, artists were forced to court a few wealthy patrons. Indeed Schiele had several such patrons, but their support was sporadic. As a result he faced financial hardship, often unable to purchase canvas, paper, or paint.

At the end of 1910 Schiele withdrew from the art scene in Vienna. Influenced by the symbolists, including Arthur Rimbaud and Rainer Maria Rilke, his works became more allegorical. He again painted many self-portraits, this time with multiple images. He also depicted frail, autumnal tree trunks against a hostile void.

In the spring of 1911 Schiele moved to a small town with seventeen-year-old Valerie Neuzil, nicknamed "Wally," who served as his principal model.

In 1913 a one-man show was held in Munich, but it met with little success. He now portrayed cloaked religious figures in works such as The Hermits (1912) and Agony (1912), which suggests a cubist influence.

In 1912 Schiele experienced what proved to be a pivotal experience: he was charged with exposing minors to pornography. His real sin seems to have been using nude child models in a provincial town. He served twenty-four days for the crime and found the experience of imprisonment shattering. Following incarceration, his art became less self-centered, more mature and empathetic. His portrayals of women were less erotic. He again created many works with religious themes, including Self Portrait as St. Sebastian (1914), Holy Family (1913), and Resurrection (1913), which perhaps referred to his period of imprisonment.

In November 1914 Schiele's beloved sister Gerti, the subject of many portraits, married Anton Peschka, a painter friend of Schiele's. Egon himself began thinking of marriage and began courting Edith Harms, a seventeen-year-old girl from a middle-class family, using Wally as a chaperone. (Wally later volunteered as a Red Cross nurse in World War I and died in Dalmatia in 1917.) Schiele's somber oil entitled Death and Maiden (1915) is thought to be a portrayal of his break with Wally.

Schiele married Edith Harms on 17 June 1915. At first exempted from the draft due to a weak heart, he was later declared fit for service. He reported for military service in Prague four days after his wedding. Like other Austrian artists, Schiele obtained a series of noncombat assignments. His first, digging trenches in Vienna, allowed him time to paint a portrait of his wife, whom he portrayed as awkward, stiff, and expressionless. Afraid of being sent to the front, Schiele sought a post as "war painter" or assignment to the Army Museum. Instead he was sent to a rural post outside of Vienna. Schiele painted some poignant portraits of Russian prisoners of war, but overall 1916 was not a productive year. Die Aktion, a leading left-wing Berlin magazine, devoted an entire issue to his work.

In early 1917 Schiele was transferred back to Vienna. He developed a new style—more empathetic and objective and less self-referential. His portraits of women depicted his subjects as thoughtful and intelligent. The Family (1918) is an allegory in which Man (Schiele) watches over a pensive wife and baby. The artist was asked to organize a Secession exhibition in Vienna that prominently displayed his works, all of which were sold. Schiele was recognized as the leading painter of his generation, and commissions began to pour in. With Klimt's sudden death from a stroke, Schiele acquired the mantle of Austria's foremost artist.

In April 1918 Schiele was at last assigned to the Army Museum in Vienna, where he organized exhibitions. In the same month, Edith became pregnant. As the war ground to its inevitable conclusion, food shortages, lack of fuel, and finally, the Spanish influenza pandemic, made life in Vienna precarious. Edith became ill with the flu and died on 28 October. Schiele succumbed three days later. His professional career had lasted only ten years.

See alsoArt Nouveau; Klimt, Gustav; Modernism; Vienna.


Comini, Alessandra. Nudes: Egon Schiele. New York, 1994.

Kallir, Jane. Egon Schiele: Life and Work. New York, 1990.

Schröder, Klaus Albrecht, and Harold Szeemann, eds. Egon Schiele and His Contemporaries: Austrian Painting and Drawing from 1900 to 1930 from the Leopold Collection, Vienna. Munich, Germany, 1989.

Whitford, Frank. Egon Schiele. New York and Toronto, 1981.

Carol P. Merriman

Egon Schiele

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Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele (1890-1918) was an Austrian Expressionist painter and draftsman, whose reputation increased greatly through the years.

Egon Schiele was born in 1890 in Lower Austria as the third child in his family. His father was a rail-road civil servant who died in 1905. His uncle became his guardian but did not support his artistic career. Nevertheless, Schiele entered the academy in Vienna where he quickly ran into difficulties with his teacher, the then famous Professor Griepenkerl.

In 1907 he met Gustav Klimt, whom he admired, who assisted him in obtaining his first commissions and who influenced his early drawing style. Following Klimt's suggestion, Schiele entered four paintings in the Vienna International Exhibition of 1909, where works by Oskar Kokoschka and Vincent Van Gogh were also shown. In the same year he left the academy and, with other young artists, formed the short-lived artist group "Neukunstgruppe"; however, the first exhibition was not successful. By 1910 he had found his own style with its strong emphasis on the contour line and vibrant colors.

In 1911 he moved to the small town of Krumau, where he painted a number of townscapes. His lifestyle caused problems in the town and he moved with his model Wally Neuziel to Neulengbach where in 1912 he was arrested and charged with immorality and seduction. Some of his drawings were confiscated; one was even burned by the judge in the courtroom. He spent 24 traumatic days in jail and returned to Vienna upon his release.

His first important exhibitions were held in Germany: in 1913 in the famous Galerie Goltz in Munich and in the Folkwangmuseum in Hagen, followed by one-man exhibits in Hamburg, Breslau, Stuttgart, and Berlin, where the Expressionist journal Die Aktion published his drawings as well as his poetry. In 1915 he married Edith Harms, and a few days later he was drafted into the army. After having been assigned to guard Russian prisoners of war, the Die Aktion journal published a special issue with his drawings and the Berlin Sezession exhibited his works.

In 1917 he was transferred to the Army Museum in Vienna, which provided him with some time to paint again. A portfolio of 12 drawing reproductions was published. He was invited to participate in exhibits in Munich, Dresden, Amsterdam, and Stockholm, but his poverty remained unchanged. The first truly great success came in 1918 with his exhibit at the Vienna Secession (no less than 19 paintings and several drawings). He received a number of commissions, and 25 of his works were exhibited in Zurich. Shortly thereafter, however, his wife—who was expecting a child-died of the Spanish influenza epidemic, and three days later the artist succumbed to the same disease.

Schiele was an extraordinary artist who—together with the young Kokoschka—must be considered the outstanding Austrian Expressionist. His dominating theme was the human body, which he depicts in truly singular forms. The many nudes, female as well as male, are devoid of any then-acceptable concept of beauty and are like psychograms emphasizing tensions and even tragedy. Likewise in his paintings of children he emphasized their awkward bodies and their earnest eyes, and yet, the impact of these works on the viewer is very strong because the depictions are forthright and direct. His eros knows more of unresolved tensions and painful dreamstates than of joy. Even his marvelous townscapes frequently lack perspective dimensions and let the windows of the houses appear like blind eyes; they are expressions of the artist's mood more than topographical depictions; they are images of fall—with isolated, dry trees standing in the cold wind.

Schiele's symbolic works, such as "Death and the Maiden," "The Hermits," or even such seemingly happy themes as "Mother with Two Children," show the same penetrating insight for which his portraits have become famous, giving less a literary likeness than a psychogram of the sitters and subjects. His many self-portraits are proof of his continuous struggle with what he considered the soul of the arts: the depiction of that truth which lies below the surface. While the subject matter seems to be depressing, his works prove otherwise. The extraordinary ability to form the three dimensional body through dominating contour lines, his choice of very strong and forthright colors, the frequently ambiguous spaces, and his extraordinary sensitivity, which transforms even a seemingly quick drawing into a complete work of art, have allowed Schiele's fame to continue to grow. The feverish erotic states which so frequently dominate Schiele's works have by now lost their shock and have been recognized as unique depictions of human life as seen by one of the great artists of the 20th century.

Further Reading

The oeuvre catalogues of Schiele's works (paintings as well as graphics) have been published by Otto Kallir-Nirenstein (1966; 1970). To these can now be added the 1973 volume by Rudolf Leopold. Arthur Roessler published Schiele's letters and prosepoems in 1921, and Christian M. Nebehay in 1979 published a biography together with many newly discovered letters and some of the poems. Special aspects of Schiele's life and works have been treated by contemporaries, such as Heinrich Benesch in My Way with E.S. (1965), and Alexandra Comini wrote a monograph on Schiele's portraits and a number of important articles. Of equal importance are the many exhibition catalogues, which not only attest to the artist's growing fame but frequently contain important critical contributions.

Additional Sources

Egon Schiele and his contemporaries: Austrian painting and drawing from 1900 to 1930 from the Leopold collection, Vienna, Munich: Prestel; New York: Distributed in the USA and Canada by te Neues Pub. Co., 1989.

Kallir, Jane, Egon Schiele, the complete works: including a biography and a catalogue raisonne, New York: H.N. Abrams, 1990. □

Schiele, Egon

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Schiele, Egon (1890–1918) Austrian painter, one of the greatest exponents of expressionism. His characteristic paintings portray anguished or isolated naked figures whose distorted bodies reflect their mental pain. Schiele also produced landscapes and semi-allegorical pictures.