Dated 1910, Female Nude was executed at a turning point in Egon Schiele’s early career. A precocious painter and remarkable draughtsman, Schiele was at the time barely twenty years old. A devoted admirer of Gustav Klimt, the young aspiring painter had until then carefully studied and internalised the master’s lessons, reproducing the distilled, elegant lines and the decorative, patterned spaces championed by the older painter in his paintings of 1909. Yet, in 1910, Schiele broke away from Klimt’s influence. He began to isolate figures in empty, preponderant spaces and infused his lines with an emotional intensity, unseen until then.
Epitomising this shift, Female Nude belongs to a specific series of nudes on paper heightened in white gouache. In the present work, a headless bust faces the viewer. Slightly tilted to the left, the body is emphasised in its vertical progression, as though the artist had wished to command that invisible line which harmoniously ties a woman’s breasts, navel and pubic area. A similar preoccupation is shown in four other related drawings (Kallir nos. D553, D555, D556, D557), suggesting that the artist’s interest was not incidental. In Female Nude, however, Schiele dared to frame the work in the most radical way possible: ignoring the left arm of the figure and her head, and cropping her legs just below the knee, Schiele has reduced the female figure to a fragment, visually translating the focus of his discerning eye. Reinforcing the isolation of this new form, the artist then heightened the contour of the figure with a thick, brilliant white gouache, which pushes the body forward while enhancing the expressiveness and precision of the single line that outlines its shape.
The model used for Female Nude may have been the artist’s sister Gerti. Schiele had portrayed her on a number of other occasions; four years Schiele’s junior, she was always at hand at a time when finding models was not easy for the young artist. In 1910 – at the time when Female Nude was executed – Schiele was working on a large, nude portrait of Gerti, which he exhibited in Vienna that same year (Kallir nos. P170, cf. D518). In that now lost work, Gerti was portrayed suspended in the empty canvas, seated on an invisible chair, her arms folded horizontally at the side of her face, enhancing the vertical slant of her bust in a pose not too dissimilar from that suggested in Female Nude. Either in preparation for that major painting, or in response to an interest in the female nude which would only grow over the following years, Female Nude marks the beginning of Schiele’s distinctive graphic style and of a theme that would become central to his work.
On the verso of Female Nude, there is a 1908 portrait of Schiele’s friend Hans Massmann. Also a painter, Massmann was one of the members of the Neukunstgruppe, the group of dissident painters who – under Schiele’s leadership – had broken away from the Academy’s rigid rules in 1909. That same year, Schiele portrayed Massmann in a major painting, still showing the influence of Klimt. On the same sheet are thus found two moments of Schiele’s daring beginnings: a token of the time of the artist’s rebellious rejection of the Academy and the emblem of his immediate mastery of a style and vision that would make him one of the most remarkable draughtsmen of the twentieth century.