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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Egon Schiele was a uniquely expressive portrait painter from the early 20th century who took the qualities of his master, Gustav Klimt, and inserted strong touches of expression and innovation.

Specialist in the Portrait Genre

Austrian Schiele produced portrait sketches and paintings of an erotic nature which was bold for this period of art, although he also captured several stunning landscapes during his short career too. Gustav Klimt shared a close relationship with Egon and the two held similar views with regards art and the way in which it should reflect emotion, love and sexual desire.

Connection to Gustav Klimt

Klimt and Schiele both produced drawings with blended, intertwined limbs and bodies as well as twisted shapes to make use of their highly expressive approaches. There were standard portraits, but many more that were not. Egon was a creative artist from an early age who wanted to experiment with new ideas rather than follow what had gone before. The early training that he received was too restrictive and he left as a result in order to avoid having his style becoming too mainstream and conservative.

Klimt's provided help and assistance to Schiele in the early part of his career, buying some of his drawings and encouraging him where ever he could to continue along the route that he was taking. Klimt himself was tutoring many young artists at that time, but took a particular interest in Egon as he felt he possessed particular raw talent and artistic potential. The eroticism of much of the artist's work was eventually to see him imprisoned for a short period, underlining just how controversial the work of artists like Schiele and Klimt was at that time.

Seated Female Nude with Raised Right Arm, Seated Woman with Bent Knee, Standing Male Nude with Red Loincloth and Umarmung (Embrace) are four of the most famous drawings from Schiele, although many more are discussed elsewhere within this website. There is also a paintings section that includes landscape paintings such as Four Trees and Setting Sun as well as all of his major figurative works, both portraits and self-portraits.

Themes used in his paintings

The themes of sex and death would run through a number of the artist's paintings and drawings, and Schiele was also particularly self-reflective, leading to him producing so many self-portraits. His character was entirely memorable and controversial in equal measure, and he would use these qualities to promote his work around Vienna. Eventually, the more traditionally minded would turn against him and ultimately this led to his imprisonment, but it would be entirely wrong to suggest that he did not also have a fair share of support too.

Prominence of Vienna

The city of Vienna was in a turbulent period at the time, experiencing social problems at around the turn of the century and also being a major part of an empire in clear decline. These problems seemed to herald in some exciting and creative influences which went well beyond just the visual arts and Schiele was ideally placed to ride on this wave of innovation. His initial meeting with Klimt would set off an important relationship which greatily impacted the earlier period of his career.

Unique Character

Even within a short career that lasted only around a decade, there was still just enough time for some subtle changes in Schiele's style. He became less reliant on ideas from his master and started to work more expressively, now starting to really produce an entirely unique oeuvre. It was then that his narcissistic character would start to appear within highly personal self portraits which attacked the social norms of the time and placed him in all manner of vulnerable and inappropriate poses.

Early Life and Transition to Artist

By this point he had come a long way indeed, as the son of a station master who had already lost his father to sickness and been left to pursue his career ambitions by himself. The city of Vienna had brought him so much, and although he had his detractors, there were also many who were now backing his progress passionately. It would ultimately be the point at which the Spanish flu reached this city that ultimately marked the artist's card.

It was around 1910 when Egon Schiele would start to impress his own deep feelings into his work and push away from the influence of Klimt. He started to see an expressiveness and emotion in everything by this stage, including rows of houses which appeared in several paintings. The titles that he would use would also underline this new approach, giving us the likes of Dead City and Thunderstorm Mountain. He would also start to make use of symbolism as well, something that was rife within the city's art output during that period.

His canvases became larger in order to better make use of the way in which he was now working, as well as to really shock and surprise the viewer with a style that was viewed by many as controversial for the time. Ultimately he would push things too far in the eyes of some, leading to his arrest, but today his work is viewed far differently, through the lens of more liberal thinking and is embraced with love by most of those with an interest in early 20th century Expressionist art.

Vienna continues to celebrate the work of Egon Schiele

Those most interested in seeing Egon Schiele's art in person should head to the Leopold Museum in Vienna which contains the largest single selection of this artist's work. They own an impressive array from his career, numbering over 200 items in total and featuring oil paintings, watercolours, drawings and prints. There is also other documentation from his life and career included here too and the institution continues to work hard in promoting and educating us all about the achievements of this extraordinary individual.

It is pleasing to see so much of his work within Vienna as this city played an important part in his life and also has an excellent existing connection with the arts, to which this selection of work provides a significant additional boost. The city provided him with most of his early training and also provided significant cultural outlets that could help develop his imagination just as his career started to take off.

Sadly, Egon Schiele passed away in Vienna in 1918, before he had even reached his 30s. More on his life is included within our biography. He contracted Spanish flu during a pandemic that claimed over 20m lives just in Europe alone. The artist passed away just a few days after his wife, Edith, who tragically was also pregnant at the time. On top of WWI it was a truly awful period for the continent and it is therefore a little unsurprising that the Expressionist art movement would appear from this heart breaking turmoil, with Schiele being seen as one of its key exponents.

Ironically, one of the major challenges to their work in the next few decades would be the rise of extreme politics within the region which was also caused, in part, by the lingering social issues left over from the war itself. Schiele would not be around to see this battle carried out between contemporary artists and the ruling powers, but ultimately it would be the artists who won, as we continue to celebrate their work today.