Austrian artist Egon Schiele (June 12, 1890 - October 31, 1918) is best known for his expressionistic - and often sexually explicit - depictions of the human body. He was a successful artist in his time, but his career was cut short by the Spanish flu pandemic. He died at age 28.
Born in Tulln, Austria, on the banks of the Danube River, Egon Schiele was the son of Adolf Schiele, a station master for the Austrian State Railways. Trains were the subject of many of Egon's early drawings as a child. He was known to spend many hours drawing and avoiding other topics in school.
Egon Schiele had three sisters: Melanie, Elvira, and Gerti. Elvira often modeled for her brother's paintings. She married Schiele's friend, the artist Anton Peschka. Schiele was close to his sister Gerti, the youngest child of the family; some biographical accounts suggest that the relationship was incestuous.
Schiele's father died from syphilis when the artist was 15. Schiele became a ward of his maternal uncle, Leopold Czihaczek. With the change of households, Schiele experienced support for his interest in art. In 1906, he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.
In 1907, a teenage Egon Schiele sought out the famed artist Gustav Klimt the founder of the Vienna Secession. Klimt took a keen interest in Schiele and bought his drawings while also introducing him to other patrons. Schiele's early works show a strong influence of art nouveau and the style of the Vienna Secession.
Klimt invited Schiele to exhibit his work at the 1909 Vienna Kuntschau. Schiele encountered the work of many other artists at the event, including Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gog. Shortly after, Schiele's work began to explore the human form in a sometimes sexually explicit manner. His 1910 painting "Kneeling Nude with Raised Hands" is seen as one of the most important nude pieces of the early 20th century. However, many observers at the time considered Schiele's frank sexual content disturbing.
In later years, Schiele distanced himself from Klimt's ornate art nouveau-inspired aesthetic. Instead, his works began to take on a dark, emotional feel, emphasizing the intensity of human psychology.
From 1910 to 1912, Schiele participated in a wide range of group shows in Prague, Budapest, Cologne, and Munich. He founded the Neukunstgrupped (New Art Group) as a rebellion against the conservative nature of the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna. The group included other young artists such as Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka.
In 1911, Schiele met 17-year-old Walburga Neuzil. Neuzil lived with Schiele and served as a model for many of his paintings. Together, they left Vienna for Krumau, a small town that is now part of the Czech Republic. It was the birthplace of Egon's mother. The couple was driven out of the town by local residents who disapproved of their way of life, including the fact that Schiele hired local teenage girls as nude models.
Schiele and Neuzel moved to the small Austrian town of Neulengbach, about 35 kilometers west of Vienna. Egon's art studio became a gathering place for local teenagers, and in 1912, he was arrested for seducing a young underaged girl. Police searching the studio seized more than one hundred drawings considered pornographic. A judge later dropped charges of seduction and abduction but convicted the artist of exhibiting erotic works in places accessible to children. He spent 24 days in jail.
Schiele painted "Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant" in 1912. Historians consider it one of his most significant self-portraits. He depicted himself staring at viewers in a confident fashion. It avoids an idealized view of the artist by showing lines and scars on his face and neck. It was exhibited in Munich in 1912 and now resides in Vienna's Leopold Museum.
In 1913, the Galerie Hans Goltz produced Egon Schiele's first solo show. He had another solo exhibition in Paris in 1914. In 1915, Schiele decided to marry Edith Harms, a daughter of middle-class parents in Vienna. He reportedly expected to also keep his relationship with Walburga Neuzil, but when she found out about the intent to marry Edith, she left, and Schiele never saw her again. He painted "Death and the Maiden" in response to the split with Neuzil, and he married Edith on June 17, 1915.
Schiele avoided signing up to fight in World War I or nearly a year, but three days after his wedding, authorities called him to active duty in the army. Edith followed him to Prague, the city where he was stationed, and they were allowed to occasionally see each other.
Despite his military service guarding and escorting Russian prisoners, Schiele continued to paint and exhibit his work. He had shows in Zurich, Prague, and Dresden. Due to a heart condition, Schiele received a desk job assignment as a clerk at a prisoner of war camp. There, he drew and painted imprisoned Russian officers.
In 1917, Schiele returned to Vienna and co-founded the Vienna Kunsthalle (Art Hall) with his mentor, Gustav Klimt. Schiele painted prolifically and participated in the Vienna Secession's 49th exhibit in 1918. Fifty of his works were displayed in the main hall of the event. The exhibition was a rousing success.
In 1918, the worldwide Spanish flu pandemic struck Vienna. Six months pregnant, Edith Schiele died of the flu on October 28, 1918. Egon Schiele died three days later. He was 28 years old.
Egon Schiele was a crucial figure in the development of Expressionism in painting. Schiele painted a phenomenal number of self-portraits and executed more than 3,000 drawings. His works often have stark emotional content in addition to the frank study of the human body. He worked alongside both Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, other key Austrian artists of the era.
Schiele's short yet prolific art career, the sexually explicit content of his work, and the allegations of sexual misconduct against the artist himself have made him the subject of multiple films, essays, and dance productions.
The Leopold Museum in Vienna has the most extensive collection of Schiele's work: over 200 pieces. Schiele's work draws some of the highest contemporary prices at auction. In 2011, Houses With Colorful Laundry (Suburb II) sold for $40.1 million.
In 2018, the 100th anniversary of Egon Schiele's death inspired significant exhibitions of his work in London, Paris, and New York.
Text by Bill Lamb
Born in Tulln on November 30th, 1889
Died in Vienna on November 30th, 1917