In 1910, aged just twenty, the young, precocious artist Egon Schiele broke away from the prevailing Viennese style, which was epitomised by the stylised forms and decorative surfaces of Gustav Klimt, and developed his own radical, intensely personal form of Expressionism. Taking the human figure as his subject, Schiele infused his line with a potent and charged expression, isolating the body in empty spaces, while experimenting with bold, often unnatural colour.
Oesterreichisches Mäderl dates from this groundbreaking year in the short yet prolific life of the artist. With vivid orange flesh, the young, blond-haired girl is clothed in a black and white checked dress, its fabric rendered so vividly with a mass of crisply crossing lines that every crease and fold seems to pulsate on the surface of the paper. One of a series in which Schiele took as his models the young street children of Vienna’s slums, Oesterreichisches Mäderl encapsulates the bold, artistic experimentation that defines the artist’s work from this year; indeed, Jane Kallir has described this series as being among the artist’s ‘first true Expressionist portraits’ (J. Kallir, Egon Schiele Drawings and Watercolours, London, 2003, p. 78).
Schiele was captivated by the uninhibited, unselfconscious manner of Vienna’s street urchins. A friend of Schiele, the artist Albert Paris von Gütersloh recalled, ‘[The children] feared nothing from the paper that lay next to Schiele on the sofa, and the young man was always playing with the pencil or the brush… Suddenly, and although he didn’t appear to have been paying attention at all, he would say very softly… “stop!” And now, as if under the spell of his magic, they froze as they were… as though they had been banished to timelessness or covered with lava, and then, in a twinkling, brought back to life. That is the immortal moment in which the transitory is transformed into the eternity of art’ (A. P. von Gütersloh, quoted in J. Kallir, Egon Schiele: The Complete Works, London, 1990, p. 75).
The young girl in Oesterreichisches Mäderl appears quiet and lost in thought, staring into the empty space that surrounds her. Schiele, who once described himself as ‘an eternal child’, had a close rapport with these young models and an ability to sense their moods, capturing their unaffected, idiosyncratic poses, expressions and personalities with a charming yet arresting precision.
Oesterreichisches Mäderl was once in the collection of Otto and Eva Benesch. The son of Heinrich Benesch, one of the first supporters of Schiele, Otto was an art historian and director of the Albertina in Vienna, and, through his father, developed a passionate appreciation for the artist’s work. His wife, Eva, also had family connections with the artist and, like Otto, had sat for Schiele as a young girl.