Seated couple, 1915
Watercolor, pencil, and embrossing
51.8 x 41 cm
I was in love with everything—I wanted to look with love at the angry people so that their eyes would be forced to respond; and I wanted to bring gifts to the envious and tell them that I am worthless.
—Egon Schiele (1)
Whether expressing political or societal critiques or existential ideas, the art of Egon Schiele (1890, Tulln, Austria–1918, Vienna) often has symbolic, or allegorical, meaning. He was interested in such art for two reasons: He saw himself as contributing to this European figurative tradition, following his mentor Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), who also used symbolism and allegory in his own paintings. In addition, an artist could demonstrate his or her intellectual and technical prowess through these types of paintings. (2)
One of the most important events of Schiele’s short life and especially for his allegorical artworks occurred in April 1912 when he was arrested for creating what was then considered pornography and abducting a young girl. At the time he was living in a town outside Vienna with his girlfriend Walburga “Wally” Neuzil (an arrangement considered sinful at the time), and his home was often filled with local children curious about his art making. Rumors began to spread in the community. (3) Complaints to the police led to the confiscation of more than a hundred of his erotic drawings. While the charges of abduction and seduction were dropped, he served 24 days in jail, and the judge burned one of his drawings in front of a crowd. In response, Schiele began to use his art to challenge the established social order that led to his imprisonment and a culture that he thought did not understand him or his talent. (4)
Schiele’s portraits of couples typified his allegorical paintings. In 1915, Schiele married Edith Harms, a woman of greater social standing than Wally, and Wally no longer modeled for him. A sense of separation or anxiety permeates many of his portraits of intertwined couples, including Seated Couple, (Sitzendes Paar, 1915). In this gouache, the couple acts as an allegory for the relationship between man and woman and even, life and death. (5) A woman embraces a man from behind. She has Edith’s face, while the man, representing Schiele, looks like a doll, helpless and totally dependent on the woman behind him. (6) The portrait shows his conflicted feelings about Edith. Though lacking Wally’s energizing sexuality, she is innocent, supportive, and loyal. Other paintings from 1915 also depict a human figure with what appears to be a life-size doll.
1. Egon Schiele, “Visions,” Die Aktion (Berlin) (1914), quoted in Frank Whitford, Egon Schiele (London: Thames and Hudson, 1981), p. 95.
2. Ibid., p. 109.
3. Ibid., p. 115.
4. Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection, Vienna, exh. cat. (Cologne: DuMont; New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1998), p. 21.
5. Egon Schiele, exh. cat. (Bilbao: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao), p. 162
6. Whitford, Egon Schiele, p. 158.
Look together at Egon Schiele’s Seated Couple (1915). Ask students what they notice. Compare the figures to each other. How would they compare their facial features? What is similar or different about their body language and the proportions of their bodies?
Some people have said that the male figure is like a doll. What do students think? Do they agree or disagree? Why?
This work was painted shortly after an important moment in Schiele’s life. In 1915 he ended a long-standing relationship with his model and girlfriend to marry Edith Harms, who is depicted in this work. The artwork is considered symbolic of his feelings during this time. Ask students to think about what it could mean.
No artist was more influential for Schiele than Gustav Klimt, who was known for his large symbolic or allegorical portraits. Show students Klimt’s most famous painting, The Kiss (Der Kuss, 1908). Compare Klimt’s portrait to Schiele’s Seated Couple. What similarities and differences do students see? Encourage them to think about proportions, perspective, color, decorative elements, and the relationship between figure and environment. How did Schiele break away from Klimt’s style? What do students think he took from him? Ask which artwork they like better and why.
Discuss the meaning of allegory. Has the class ever read a book or heard a tale that could be described in this way? Many of Schiele’s paintings are considered allegorical, or symbolic, of his political or moral critiques. Tell students that for this activity they will think about something they believe is wrong with today’s society, or more specifically, with their school. They may be critical of the treatment of the poor or the environment. In school, they may wish that students did not bully each other. They should write similes or metaphors comparing the topics they are critical of with something else. Finally, they should make drawings of their similes or metaphors. Ask students to share their allegorical drawings with each other. From looking at the drawings, what can students guess about their classmates’ critiques?
From Poem to Painting
For this activity, tell students they will write poems based on a picture or artwork. Ask students to look at Seated Couple and write words or phrases based on the picture. Discuss the painting and then ask them to write more words or phrases. Compare their notes. What changed after they had discussed the painting with each other? What new ideas do the phrases represent?
Now ask students to rearrange these words or phrases into a poem or even a short story. How are their original ideas transformed in the process?
Figure Drawing in Perspective
Schiele’s works often experiment with different perspectives, or points of view. The artist was known to stand on a ladder to draw his models from above (1) or at the top of a tower to depict his cityscapes. For this activity, ask students to pair up and together brainstorm several perspectives (from above, below, behind, far away, or close up) from which they could draw each other’s portraits. Then ask them to each make two sketches of their partner or “model” from two different perspectives. What are the challenges of this kind of activity? How can a new perspective change the way the subject appears, the emotion of the painting, and/or the meaning behind it?
1. Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection, p. 21
Allegory: a story, poem, or picture that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning, typically a moral or political one.
Gouache: a method of painting, similar to watercolor, using opaque pigments ground in water and thickened with a glue-like substance
Egon Schiele (December 7, 2005–March 19, 2006), Albertina, Vienna
Egon Schiele: The Leopold Collection, Vienna, exh. cat. Cologne: DuMont; New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1998.
“The Figure Drawing Lab.” University of Evansville, United States
Friedel, Helmut, and Helena Perena, eds. Egon Schiele: The Unsalvageable Ego: Works from the Albertina, exh. cat. Cologne: Wienand, 2012
Vincent, Clare. “Auguste Rodin (1840–1917)” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York