24. March 2024

Great Art Encounters – Portrait of Trude Engel by Egon Schiele

Portrait of Trude Engel by Egon Schiele

Austrian art’s very own enfant terrible at the Lentos Kunstmuseum in Linz


Imagine being the person who gave away six paintings by Egon Schiele because you didn’t like the style and couldn’t stand to have them in your house.

100 years after his untimely death in 1918 aged just 28, the market for the Austrian expressionist artist’s works is strong, with some selling for tens of millions at auction. Tourists flock to Vienna’s Leopold Museum and Belvedere Palace in their thousands to see his best-known works which – along with Gustav Klimt and Koloman Moser – count among the most recognisable from Austria’s secessionist period.

If only Dr. Hermann Engel had known this when he got rid of the paintings Schiele had done for him, feeling they were an affront to his bourgeois sensibilities.

Art for dental treatment

Engel was a dentist in Vienna who treated Schiele during the early 1910s. As Schiele was always hard up for cash, Engel allowed the artist to pay his dental bills with art. In all, six paintings were given in consideration for the treatment provided, including a portrait of the dentist’s young daughter, Trude.

The portrait, painted in 1915, shows Trude with long, flowing dark brown hair, wearing a long-sleeved dress. Unlike some of Schiele’s other portraits in which the backgrounds are left white, the Portrait of Trude Engel is done entirely in earthy browns, oranges and reds, with the subject sitting within a kind of red apex. It is impossible to tell whether she is standing or sitting.

The painting is certainly striking. This well-to-do young lady in the full bloom of youth gazes out at us with her wide eyes, suggesting innocence and chastity. At the same time, the pose – hand on hip, lips slightly parted – radiates the self-assurance and sexual confidence of a much older woman. Without knowing the background to the painting, it’s hard to discern just how old the subject was at the time of her portrait.

And – even though it is thought highly improbable that Trude Engel and Egon Schiele had any kind of romantic relationship – the viewer inevitably begins to wonder about the exact nature of the feelings between painter and subject. Is the mildly erotic undercurrent in the painting a product of Schiele’s imagination, or was it a reflection of real life?

An affront to polite society

Despite its myriad ambiguities, the Portrait of Trude Engel is pleasant to contemplate – for modern eyes at least. In the early years of the 20th century, however, Schiele’s works, with their raw sexuality and human bodies twisted into improbable poses, caused uproar in Vienna and also in the small town of Krumau (now Český Krumlov in Czechia) where Schiele also lived for a time.

And it wasn’t just his art that caused a commotion. The enfant terrible of the Austrian art acene also had conservative eyebrows shooting skywards due to his unconventional lifestyle. His conducting an affair and cohabiting with his lover Wally Neuzil was a sore point – as were the rumours that Schiele used local teenage girls as models in his studio.

In 1912, Schiele even had charges brought against him for seducing a 13-year-old girl. Although these were eventually dropped, he was still sentenced to a short period in jail for exhibiting pornographic works in a space accessible to children – his house in Neulengbach near Vienna, which had become a meeting spot for local youths. In court, the presiding judge overtly expressed his distaste at Schiele’s work by burning one of the artist’s racier sketches over a candle flame.

Trude Engel was not amused

That certainly seems to have been the kind of reaction that Schiele’s paintings triggered in the Engel household, including young Trude. The extent to which she felt offended by her own portrait only became publicly known in the early 1990s, when her brother (then living in England) saw a reproduction of the painting in a book and instantly recognised his sister’s likeness. He wrote to the Lentos Kunstmuseum (then called the Neue Gallerie der Stadt Linz), which by then owned the painting, describing his connection to it as well as the backstory. In the letter, the younger Engel tells how his sister, in a fit of rage, attacked the picture with a knife, leaving cuts across the canvas.

Since the Lentos museum has placed the painting in the centre of the room, viewers are able to examine the back of the picture, where the evidence of Trude’s tantrum can still be seen.

The damage was repaired, but the picture would not remain in the Engel household – his father simply did not get on with Schiele’s style and it was given away along with the other five works-for-treatment before the end of the First World War.

A work concealing a work

The story of the painting does not stop there. During restoration, x-rays revealed the remains of another painting under Trude’s portrait. It is known that Schiele, like other artists, re-used canvases – and this is what appears to have happened here. Under Trude’s face and flowing dark hair, there is a sort of Madonna image with a skull head. The lines of this earlier painting may have been the reason for that unusual red apex that Trude sits within in the later work.

Contemplating great art is so much more than looking at a picture. It’s just as much about learning about the context and circumstances of the work’s creation as looking at the work itself and examining its effect on you.

Knowing so much about the story of this lesser-known Schiele work makes it the most moving work in the collection of the Lentos Kunstmuseum. It is not just an arresting picture, but the expression of a certain moment in time, arrived at through the interaction of people long gone. It brings them, and that amazing, hyper-creative period of Vienna’s history in the early part of the 20th century, back to life.

Yet there are some mysteries that the picture will never give up. What was the true nature of the relationship between artist and model? What exactly caused Trude to get so cross that she set about the picture with a blade? We will never know.

Egon Schiele – a great artist gone too soon

In the years after his arrangement with Dr. Engel, Schiele continued to work prolifically. Despite having to fulfil military duties during the war, he still produced work after work – evolving to take on the more profound themes of motherhood, rebirth and death.

By the time of Schiele’s death from Spanish ‘flu in 1918, just days after the death of his pregnant wife Edith from the same illness, he had become a mature artist fully in command of his prodigious talents.

Sadly, just as we will never know the full truth about the portrait of Trude Engel, we will never know just how Egon Schiele would have developed as an artist and what he might have given the world had he lived longer.


More from the Great Art Encounters series:

“Guernica” by Pablo Picasso

“The Birth of Venus” by Sandro Botticelli

“The Slav Epic” by Alphonse Mucha


Photo: Egon Schiele, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons