‘With the precision of stop-action photography, Schiele could catch a moving body, or the flickering of emotion – a quivering lip, a furrowed brow – as it passed fleetingly across a sitter’s face. In this, he ranks alongside such artists as Hans Holbein as one of the greatest draftsmen of all time. Because Schiele plumbed the very souls of his subjects, his drawings remain as fresh and vital today as they were when made. There is a timelessness to Schiele’s best work that speaks to the unchanging essence of humanity across time and space’ (J. Kallir, Egon Schiele: Drawings and Watercolours, London, 2003, p. 442).
Displaying the prodigious power of Egon Schiele’s draughtsman hand, Mädchenkopf (Frau Sohn) dates from 1918, the final, triumphant year of the artist’s intense career. Executed in charcoal, in one single breath, the portrait is a feat of accuracy and expressiveness: from under an unruly waterfall of curls, the eyes of a woman pierce out of the paper, caught in a moment of fleeting absence. Staring right in front of her, the woman seems to be lost in her thoughts, not really seeing what is in front of her, but rather scrutinizing the depth of her inner world.
1918 – the year Mädchenkopf (Frau Sohn)was executed – had begun for Schiele in promising terms: the artist had been invited by the Secession to organise their annual exhibition. As part of the display, Schiele had been allocated the main room, where he exhibited nineteen oils and twenty-nine works on paper. The event was a success: having sold almost every single work, Schiele had been finally acknowledged as Vienna’s leading artist. One of the consequences of Schiele’s immediate reputation was a sudden flow of portrait commissions. By October 1918, the artist had already received fourteen.
Within this context, drawings played an important role. Crucial to the artist’s practice, they constituted a necessary preliminary moment of study before the painted portrait. Extremely poignant and impeccably executed, these preparatory drawings aroused the attention of clients just as strongly as the finished paintings, a flattering fact which, nevertheless, seemed to irritate Schiele, or at least so he wanted his friends to believe. In a letter of 1917, the artist had already complained: ‘… my drawings have simply no other purpose than as preparations for pictures to be painted – they are intended only for myself, and they have immense value for me because I have the "closest" conception of a work before me. Unfortunately, many of my, to me, most valuable drawings have too often been taken away from me, and so it came about that many large pictures have already had to remain incomplete in their first bud, and people are finally deluded and think that my drawings are already pictures’ (quoted in A. Comini, Egon Schiele's Portraits, Berkeley, 1974, p. 161).
Schiele’s apparent chagrin might have been motivated by his ambition to finally be able to live on the noble art of painting, rather than the drawings on which he had mainly subsisted when still a struggling young artist. The artist, however, must not have been, in reality, so opposed to the idea of his drawings as self-sufficient works of art: Mädchenkopf (Frau Sohn), for instance, was bought by Mrs Sohn directly from Schiele, suggesting that to both sitter and artist the work possessed an undeniable value and significance. Of a pronounced intensity, the sheet illustrates how it was especially in his drawings that Schiele demonstrated a remarkable subtlety during the last year of his career. This was particularly apparent with female sitters. Jane Kallir observed: ‘…since his marriage [Schiele] had become a particularly keen observer of women. All his commissioned 1917 and 1918 oils depict men, but if one excludes the studies for these paintings, females outnumber males in the portrait drawings… While Schiele’s paintings of men can be perfunctory, suggesting a task done more for money than for love, the women in the drawings are invariably alert, vibrant human beings with a palpable presence. Just as Schiele once boldly chronicled the power of female sexuality, he now acknowledged female identity in a manner that was, for its day, hardly less radical’ (J. Kallir, Egon Schiele: Drawings and Watercolours, London, 2003, p. 442).