An icon of 20th-century Austrian art whose works are instantly recognizable—and still scandalous—100 years after his death, Egon Schiele blazed a vivid trail during his meteoric and tragically short career. His depictions of the human figure, with jagged lines substituting fervor and subtext for beauty, offered an early version of European Expressionism, and proved extraordinarily influential on artists to come. On the occasion of this centennial, Schiele’s drawings will be on view in Obsession: Nudes by Klimt, Schiele, and Picasso at The Met Breuer, a showcase of the superb eye of collector and aesthete Scofield Thayer (1889–1982).
As a student at the conservative Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, a frustrated young Schiele sought the mentorship of Gustav Klimt, the modernist master and giant of the Viennese cultural world. The latter painter made important connections for his protégé, including to the influential design collective the Wiener Werkstätte, which published three postcards by the young artist in 1910.
A prolific draftsman, Schiele produced thousands of drawings, all in an unmistakable style. Featuring figures with taut, angular limbs in torqued, off-centered compositions, his works exude psychological intensity—and feature depictions of sexual subject matter whose frankness has not lost its power to surprise, even shock, 21st-century viewers.
In 1911, Schiele and his muse Wally Neuzil decamped from Vienna, first to his mother’s hometown in Bohemia, then to Neulengbach, some 20 miles from the city. In this small town, Schiele attracted opprobrium for inviting children to his studio, allegedly to pose nude. He would serve a 24-day prison sentence on the charge of exposing minors to pornography on his premises—presumably, works by his own hand. His style following this episode took a less overtly erotic—if no less heightened—turn.
Schiele eventually parted ways with Wally, marrying the more respectable Edith Harms when he was 25. (The above drawing from 1917 likely shows Edith from behind, wearing the modest jacket and blouse of a matron with the lacy slip of a demimondaine.) While the advent of World War I didn’t slow the pace of his commissions and exhibitions throughout Europe, he was conscripted, serving two years in the Austrian army.
Self-Portrait. Egon Schiele (Austrian, 1890–1918). Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, 20 1/4 x 13 3/4 in., 1911. Bequest of Scofield Thayer, 1982 (1984.433.298ab)
Months after a triumphant exhibition at the 49th exhibition of the Vienna Secession in 1918, Schiele died of the Spanish flu, only days after Edith. He was 28 years old.