I bought a postcard of this portrait from the Centre Pompidou in Paris a few years ago and it has been a most treasured possession since, following me from Los Angeles to Chicago to London to Vermont. I have an affinity for works of art about lovely, mysterious women from the points of view of their admirers (for example, Dogs by Damien Rice, Kate by Ben Folds Five, and Victoria Anne by Simone White), and this portrait seems to perfectly capture the artist’s sense of intrigue or adoration surrounding this woman. I was so enamoured with the artist’s depiction of this beautiful woman that I never paid much attention to the artist themself.
While living in Vermont, I met a friend with a framed portrait that looked strangely familiar. He said it was a self-portrait of the Austrian artist Egon Schiele. I went home, looked at the back of my beloved postcard, and sure enough, my favourite drawing was in fact done by Schiele.
A protégé of Gustav Klimt, Schiele studied with the Secessionists before forming the Neukunstgruppe (New Art Group). He then began a great love affair with a woman he affectionately called Wally and began to study the human form. Schiele expected their affair to continue after he married Edith Harms, but Wally was devastated and left Schiele for good. The end of his affair and World War I greatly influenced Schiele. After participating in many prestigious exhibitions (such as for the Secession and the Neukunstgruppe), Schiele died at age 28 from the European Spanish flu epidemic.
To me, Schiele’s genius lies in his portraits and sketches. He had the distinct ability to capture the elusive, mysterious essence that makes women beautiful. During Schiele’s life, many people criticised his work as pornographic. Though his portraits often feature nudity, I think it was his conveyance of his subjects’ open and raw emotions that scandalized people. A look into someone’s soul is a rare and intimate occurrence not everyone is prepared to face.