But Egon Schiele certainly could paint a lovely boat.
Segelschiffe im wellenbewegtem Wasser (Der Hafen von Triest), 1907, Egon Schiele, private collection
I have a hard time loving the work of Egon Schiele. Erotic paintings, emaciated figures, and anguished self-portraits leave me cold. I far prefer the Expressionism of Käthe Kollwitz and Gabriele Münter. They weren’t happy, either, but at least they had something real to complain about.
Then my friend Bruce McMillan introduced me to Schiele’s boat paintings. They don’t quite make up for all those tortured people, but they’re beautifully drawn and kinetic. Interestingly, the highest auction prices for Schiele’s work are not for his erotica, but for his landscapes, including the record-setting Häuser mit bunter Wäsche ‘Vorstadt’ II, which sold for $40.1 million in 2011.
Boote im Hafen von Triest, 1908, Egon Schiele, courtesy Landesmuseum Niederösterreich
There’s no question that Schiele was a prodigy. At 16, he was the youngest student ever to enroll at Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. After three years, he quit without graduating. In school and after, he was mentored by Gustav Klimt, who did much to advance his career.
“Klimt was an established star and Schiele a cocksure student when the two first met in 1908,” wroteLaura Cumming. “But it is immediately obvious… that their obsessions were already mutual.”
Klimt had innumerable affairs and fathered 14 children out of wedlock. But he was staid compared to his protégée, who was completely amoral in matters of sexuality. Schiele was incestuously attracted to his sister Gerti, to the great consternation of their father (who went on to die of syphilis himself). At age 16, Schiele took Gerti, then 12, by train to Trieste and spent the night with her.
At 21, he met Walburga (Wally) Neuzil, age 17, one of Klimt’s models. Aspiring to leave ‘repressive’ Vienna behind, the couple moved to a small Bohemian village. Driven out due to their lifestyle, they moved to slightly-larger Neulengbach. There, Schiele was accused of seducing a young girl and making pornographic images available to children. Although the rape charge was eventually dropped, he spent a month in jail for the pictures.
Dampfer und Segelboote im Hafen von Triest, watercolor, pencil and gouache on Japan paper, 1912, Egon Schiele
Back in Vienna, he wrote a friend, “I intend to get married, advantageously. Not to Wally.” Instead, he’d picked out Edith Harms, from a good middle-class family. As a former prostitute and artist’s model, Wally was a professional liability. Schiele proposed that he and Wally continue their relationship, vacationing together every summer without Edith. Wally indignantly refused.
Four days after the wedding, Egon Schiele was drafted into the army. He was given a job as a clerk in a POW camp. There, he drew and painted imprisoned Russian officers, nicking extra rations for himself and Edith on the side.
Die Brücke, 1913, Egon Schiele, private collection
By 1917, Schiele was back in Vienna. He was invited to participate in the Vienna Secession’s 49th exhibition in 1918, with a prodigious 50 works in the show. His success was spectacular. Demand—and prices—for Schiele’s work rose rapidly.
It was, alas, a short-lived triumph. In autumn of that year, Spanish flu pandemicreached Vienna. Edith and their unborn child died on October 28. Schiele lived just three days more. He was just 28.
It’s tempting to wonder what marriage, parenthood, and maturity would have done to temper the wild excesses of his youth, or how it would have changed his style. But, had he lived to ripe old age, Schiele would have also experienced the annexation of Austria by the Nazis twenty years later. It’s hard to imagine he would have prospered.