Egon Schiele
Biography of Austrian Expressionist Figure Painter.

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Portrait of Valerie Neuzil (1912)
Private Collection.

Best Artists of All Time.

Egon Schiele (1890-1918)


Early Life and Training
Schiele's Portrait Art and Narcissism
Landscape Paintings
Final Years: Marriage and Commercial Success
Reputation as an Artist

Semi-Nude Girl, Reclining,
Graphische Sammlung Albertina,
Vienna (1911).

Egon Schiele: Self-Portrait (1912)
Leopold Collection, Vienna.
Schiele's self-portraits rank among
the greatest 20th century paintings
of the expressionist idiom.


One of the best portrait artists of the modern era and a key contributor to the Vienna Secession movement, the Austrian artist Egon Schiele specialised in Expressionist figure painting with erotic undertones. His powerful imagery has made him one of the most famous expressionist painters of the early 20th century. Strongly influenced by his mentor, the Jugendstil master Gustav Klimt, Schiele's paintings - mostly female nudes or male nudes - are noted for the almost animalistic intensity with which he drew them, with twisted shapes and erotic nudity. Like Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90), Schiele was a compulsive painter of self-portraits, executing numerous shocking examples, such as Eros (1911) and the grisly Nude (1910), in which his left arm is portrayed bleeding and severed at the elbow. Despite the disturbing nature of some of his pictures, his genius for figure drawing is quite unmistakable, and his unique style of German Expressionism includes several world-famous examples of modern art. His best known expressionist paintings include Pregnant Woman and Death (1910, Narodni Gallery, Prague); Self-Portrait (1910, Leopold Museum, Vienna); Girl with Black Hair (1911, MOMA, New York); Self-Portrait (1911, Metropolitan Museum, New York); Dead City III (1911, Leopold Museum, Vienna); Mourning Woman (1912, Museum of Modern Art, New York); Setting Sun (1913, Leopold Museum, Vienna); Houses on the River (1914, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid); Death and the Maiden (1915, Osterreichische Galerie, Vienna); Portrait of Johann Harms (1916, Guggenheim Museum NY); The Embrace (1917, Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna), and The Family (1918, Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna). For more about Schiele's links with expressionism, see: History of Expressionist Painting (c.1880-1930).



Early Life and Training

Schiele was born in Tulln, a town in Lower Austria, on the Danube. His father was a stationmaster for the Austrian railway. As a child he attended a local school where his art teacher recognised his talent for drawing and encouraged him to continue. When he was 15 his father died of syphilis and Schiele was looked after by his uncle. In 1906, at the age of 16, he applied to the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Arts and Crafts) in Vienna, where Gustav Klimt had once studied. Within the year however, at the insistence of the school, he was sent to the more traditional Academy of Fine Arts (Akademie der Bildenden Kunste) to continue his studies: it was the same Academy that, one year later, was to reject the art student Adolf Hitler, and the same Academy from which 100 years previously Professor Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller (1793-1865) resigned, because of its old-fashioned methods. In 1907 Schiele sought out the acquaintance of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), who took the young Schiele under his wing, buying his drawings, providing models and introducing him to potential patrons.

Schiele studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna from 1906 to 1909. His early works were greatly influenced by Klimt who admired his work. In 1908 Schiele exhibited at Klosterneuburg, and in 1909 at the important International Kunstschau exhibition in Vienna. He worked at Krumau in Bavaria in 1911, and then at Neulengbach, before settling in Vienna in 1912. He was an exceptionally gifted draughtsman and produced countless pencil drawings, as well as numerous works of gouache and watercolour painting. He began as a painter of landscapes and portraits under the influence of the new style of sezessionstil or Jugendstil, but his originality became apparent in 1909.


Schiele's Portrait Art and Narcissism

Schiele was obsessed by his own face (double and triple self-portraits) and particularly by his body, as he was by those of his models, who were often very young. The treatment is sharp, and nervous, with strident colours (Seated Male Nude, pen and gouache, 1910, Vienna, private collection; Nude Man with Widespread Legs, 1914, pencil and gouache, Albertina). The accent is on the genitalia, the cadaverous faces, the widespread and stretched fingers, the poses of lovers welded together in the final spasm (Self-Portrait with Spread Fingers, 1911, Historisches Museum der Stadt, Vienna; Two Lovers, 1913, private collection).

Schiele's painting was intensely unique and individual. It concentrates on physically intense subjects, mainly portraits (including many self-portraits towards the end of his life). His figures seem isolated, their bodies contorted, their faces gaunt, lost in thought. By contorting his subject, and using foreshortening techniques he often eliminated their limbs which reinforces a sense of disconcertion. The women are overtly physical and confrontational, opening their legs for the artist and viewer. Even today his work can appear quite shocking - let alone 100 years ago!

More authentically than with Edvard Munch (1863-1944), love and death are linked in Schiele's world. Certain complicated poses are borrowed from sculptors such as Georges Minne (1866-1941) and Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), and some themes from Munch (1863-1944) (Dead Mother I, 1910, Vienna, private collection) and from Van Gogh (1853-90) (Sunflowers; The Artist's Room in Neulengbach, 1911, Historisches Museum der Stadt, Vienna), but the two-dimensional composition and the touch, both frail and taut, are enormously effective.


As it was, the uncompromising nature of his oil painting attracted fierce opposition and earned the artist three weeks in prison (April-May 1912), which had a profound effect on him (Self-Portrait as a Prisoner, pencil and watercolour, 1912, Albertina). His art was, however, recognised by other artists as well as people in progressive circles. Some of his other portrait paintings include Pregnant Woman and Death (1910, Narodni Gallery, Prague); Self Portrait with Black Vase (1911, Historiches Museum der Stadt, Vienna); Agony (1912, Pinakothek, Munich); Death and Girl (1915, Osterreichisches Galerie, Vienna); and Sitting Woman with Legs Drawn Up (1917, Narodni Galerie, Prague).

Landscape Paintings

Some of Schiele's landscape painting reveals the same tension as his nudes (Autumn Tree, 1909, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt). Some, showing a quieter realism (Four Trees, 1917, Osterreichische Galerie) are reminiscent of those of Ferdinand Hodler (1853-1918). Quite a few, inspired by the old town of Krumau, have a geometric composition and colouring that anticipate the lyricism of Paul Klee (1879–1940) (Windows, 1914, Osterreichische Galerie, Vienna; Landscape at Krumau, 1916, Gallery of Modern Art, Linz).

Final Years: Marriage, Commercial Success

In 1915 Schiele married and he started painting sensitive portraits of his new wife, which show a more naturalistic approach. This style found more favour and over the next few years he received a growing number of commissions for portrait art. By 1918 he was beginning to experience a previously elusive, commercial success. He was invited to participate in the Secession's 49th exhibition, held in Vienna, which was a triumphant success. Unfortunately his luck ran out sooner than he could have wished. Later that year, he and his pregnant wife caught the Spanish flu and died within 3 days of each other (along with 20 million other Europeans who died in the Influenza Epidemic). His last expressionist portraits are close to Klimt in their sense of greater volume and their concern with a less abused reality (Portrait of Albert Paris Von Gutersloh, 1918, Minneapolis Institute of Arts; The Family, 1918, Osterreichische Galerie, Vienna).

Reputation As an Artist

A major exponent of Austrian Expressionism, along with Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) (whose 'psychological portraits', painted at the same time as his own, show a less probing cruelty), Schiele went beyond the eroticism of Die Brucke by his implacable refusal to make concessions, and his lucid appraisal of others and of himself.

Ranked among the top 20th century portrait artists, Schiele's art is timelessly contemporary. Although he only lived for 28 years, he was hugely prolific and painted more than 300 paintings and thousands of works on paper. The very things which made his art unpopular in his early years - the ugly distorted bodies, personal angst and unveiled eroticism - are precisely the qualities that have ensured his art endures. He saw the human figure or spirit as an animal rather than a moral human, and insisted on absolute freedom for creative individuality and self-determination.

As a measure of his stature as one of the top modern artists, one of his lesser works, Wilted Sunflowers fetched $10.7 million at Christie's in 2006. See also: Most Expensive Paintings: Top 20.


Now regarded as one of the greatest of all 20th century painters of the representational genre, Schiele's unique paintings and drawings hang in the best art museums across the world. A key figure within the expressionist movement in Austria, he is particularly well represented in Vienna, especially at the Osterreichische Galerie and the Albertina, in Vienna.

• For more about the Viennese Sezession, see: Homepage.

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