Egon Schiele: Stylistic Development
Egon Schiele entered the Vienna Academy of Fine Art at the age of sixteen, executed his first mature paintings at the age of twenty, and died of influenza eight years later. The rich body of work he left behind probes the very depths of human existence—the personal search for identity and the universal search for meaning. Owing to his rapid development, Schiele accomplished in only twenty-eight years what many artists require decades to achieve.
The in-progress digital catalogue raisonné Egon Schiele Online has recently added sections detailing the year-by-year evolution of the artist’s painting and signature styles. We hope you’ll explore these pages more fully, and here offer an overview of Schiele’s treatment of certain subjects to which he returned, again and again:
From a young age, Schiele regarded the human face as key to personal identity. Not surprisingly, his early portraits focused on family members, who were readily available to model. Early subjects include his mother and siblings.
In 1908-09, Schiele came under the influence of Gustav Klimt, who had been featured in the 1908 “Kunstschau.” Billing himself as the “Silver Klimt,” the younger artist executed a series of portraits that mimicked the master’s use of metallic leaf and triangular, off-center poses. Schiele made his Vienna debut with three of these (P149-P151) at the 1909 “Kunstschau.”
Schiele’s single most common portrait subject (excepting himself) was his uncle, Leopold Czihaczek (P2a, P3, P15-P22a, P101). Given that the two had a volatile relationship, these many paintings may have been unsuccessful attempts at reconciliation on the part of the artist.
The Expressionist “Breakthrough”
In his 1910 portraits, Schiele similarly isolated the figure on a blank ground (P160-P167). Here his palette was somber, further distancing the artist from his mentor, Klimt. However, Schiele retained a residual Jugendstil awareness of negative space, which would remain an enduring hallmark of his work both on canvas and on paper. Aesthetically and technically, his paintings during this period were more like large watercolors than conventional oils: drawing played an important structural role in defining principal contours, and the figures were filled in with thin washes. The incorporation of plaster or “chalk” in his grounds created an unusually porous surface.
In 1910, Schiele emerged from under Klimt’s shadow with his own distinctive Expressionist style. This breakthrough was heralded early in the year by a series of life-sized nudes (P168-P172). Unfortunately, only one of these five canvases survives, but we can get a sense of the series from the many related watercolors. Instead of crowding the backgrounds with Klimtian ornament, Schiele thrust his figures into an existential void. Contorted body gestures and bright, garish colors heighten the sense of anxiety and isolation.
Self-Portraits and Allegorical Self-Portraiture
In his allegorical self-portraits, Schiele was often accompanied by a second figure, appearing variously as an eerie doppelgänger, a puppet-master, a bestower of enlightenment or Death (P174, P190-P194). In one of his most famous paintings, The Hermits of 1912 (P229), Schiele appears alongside a spiritual mentor who may or may not be Gustav Klimt.
After his imprisonment in April 1912, Schiele’s allegorical ambitions became even grander. As though to teach the world a lesson and affirm the sanctity of his artistic mission, he began planning a pair of large allegorical murals, Encounter (P259) and Conversion (PXLIII). In both, the artist himself was to serve as the spirit guide, followed by a cadre of “blind” acolytes. Unfortunately, Schiele proved incapable of mastering either composition; he ended up abandoning both canvases.
Schiele is known for his numerous self-portraits. Whereas in his watercolors he experimented with a variety of emotions and personas, the self-portrait oils were usually affirmations of his artistic identity. In 1910, he began work on a group of allegorical self-portraits that may collectively be referred to as the “self-seers” series (P174, P175, P190-P194). Schiele liked to play with the double meanings of “sight” and “vision,” referring both to his literal ability to see and to spiritual insight. As an artist, he felt it was his duty to hone each of these faculties, so that he could deliver messages from beyond the visible world.
“Blindness” was a metaphor Schiele used to castigate those unable to “see” the deeper truths underlying mortal existence. However, in a startling double-self portrait of 1915, Transfiguration (P288), it is Schiele himself who appears to have been blinded. This painting is in some ways a mate to Death and Maiden (P289), in which a saucer-eyed Schiele plays the role of Death, with his-soon-to-be-ex girlfriend, Wally Neuzil, as the Maiden. Executed on the eve of the artist’s marriage, both paintings demonstrate a newfound sense of vulnerability.
Nearly half of Schiele’s oil paintings were produced prior to 1909, and the majority of those works were landscapes (P4-P7, P34-P95). Mainly small works on cardboard, these paintings provide little indication of his future development.
Schiele’s approach to landscape took a distinctive turn following a trip, in October 1910, to Krumau (today Český Krumlov in the Czech Republic). Schiele called Krumau the “dead city,” because the town’s ancient walls evoked the persistence of human creation in the face of mortality. Schiele’s first painting of the “dead city” was a gouache on paper, but at the suggestion of his patron, Arthur Roessler, he began executing similar works on small boards (Bretter).
All Schiele’s landscapes were fraught with existential meaning. Trees were analogous to human bodies, struggling to survive in a hostile environment (P217, P218, P222, P236-P242, P263-P265).
In his later landscapes, Schiele toggled between two seemingly opposite approaches: the close-up and the panorama. Zooming in on a subject (P284, P294, P301, P311, P332) allowed variations in surface detail to dictate the compositional terms. In contrast to these relatively flat vignettes, Schiele’s townscapes acquired greater depth, a quality he accentuated by setting his buildings in diminishing arcs against a distant horizon (P293, P298, P312-P314, P331). The artist’s mastery is demonstrated both by the scale of these canvases and by the deftly manipulated paint layers.
Later Portraits & Allegories
For a period after 1910, Schiele’s production of portraits dropped sharply. The falloff in commissions may have been caused by the artist’s withdrawal from the Vienna art scene, or by the fact that his Expressionistic canvases were often rejected by the sitters. Following his marriage to Edith Harms and his conscription into the army in 1915, however, Schiele developed a more humanistic approach. First evidenced in paintings of his wife (P290, P316) and father-in-law (P300), his later portrait style won him a spate of commissions when he returned to Vienna in early 1917 (P307, P309, P317, P319, P320, P321).
Schiele’s return to Vienna sparked a renewed desire to create monumental allegories. Instead of attempting to tackle his subject in a single composition, however, he now proposed a series of canvases depicting aspects of “earthly existence.” It is believed that most of his 1917-18 nudes were intended for this series (P304-306, P326-329). Though the artist depicted himself in some of the nudes, he appears as a generic “everyman,” just as the female nudes in these paintings are generic “everywomen.”
Because Schiele left a number of unfinished canvases at his death in October 1918, and because some of these were subsequently completed by another hand, it is difficult to assess the ultimate stages of the artist’s development. A late portrait of his friend, the artist Paris von Gütersloh (P322), hints at what may have been to come: a brighter palette, and a bolder, more confident layering of Expressionistic brushstrokes.