After years of struggling for recognition and sales, Schiele suddenly achieved well-deserved success as the First World War slowly drew to a close in 1918. In response to the harsh reality of news from the front and shortages at home, people seemed to have acquired a growing and more diverse taste for art, which, as a result of wartime inflation, had also suddenly become a desirable commodity. The artist wrote to his friend Anton Peschka, "People are unbelievably interested in new art. Exhibitions--be they of conventional or new art--have never before been this crowded" (quoted in J. Kallir, Egon Schiele: Life and Work, New York, 2003, p. 217). Gustav Klimt, who had dominated the avant-garde scene for two decades, died in February 1918, and now Schiele was widely viewed as his successor. Schiele's contributions to the 49th Secession exhibition, which opened in March, practically amounted to a retrospective, taking up the central room of the hall. All available works were sold within a few days of the opening. He soon became inundated by requests for portrait commissions, and offers from strangers to buy his drawings.
Schiele's drawings of nudes had now attracted a wide audience, partly the result of a more tolerant moral climate near the end of the war, but also because of the artist's more appealing naturalistic treatment of his subjects. "Schiele's style itself was no longer as shocking as it had been several years earlier; the humanism of his portraits and the refined naturalism of his line were far more accessible than had been his jarring allegories and frenetic watercolors" (ibid., p. 218). The nervous and abrupt line of Schiele's early style had yielded to a simpler, more classical and volumetric treatment of the figure, a pictorial trend that was also observable in the contemporary figurative work of Pablo Picasso in Paris and would soon spread over Europe as a revival of humanism and neo-classicism.
The present drawing, Mutter und Kind, epitomizes the artist's late graphic style. Here the sexual provocation typical of Schiele's earlier works is muted by an elegant, almost restrained, draughtsmanship. Though the drawing plainly depicts a mother and child, the recumbent figure's cradled pose and her emphatic nudity are subtly erotic; in fact, in her catalogue raisonné Jane Kallir situates this work within a series of Conté crayon drawings of a woman and child in which the subjects are often depicted kissing. Schiele's treatment of maternal subjects would always affirm the inextricable link between Eros and Thanatos--the sexual drive and the distintegrating drive towards death--by casting mothers as life-giving vessels who in fulfilling their natural function serve only to nurture the new life they have created. This "birth" is literalized in the act of the kiss, just as it is represented pictorially in Schiele's positioning of the two figures in Mutter und Kind: the mother is shown from the back, faceless, while her entire body lunges to support and frame the child's small body. As Jane Kallir has observed, "By sacrificing personality in these drawings, the artist gained a monumentality of form. The 1917-1918 nude became Schiele's allegorical 'Everywoman.' In Schiele's late oeuvre, the nude female--as opposed to her more primly painted portrait counterpart--is in essence a symbol, not a person" (ibid., p. 226).