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Egon Schiele and Wally Neuzil

As mentioned in my last post, I recently visited Vienna for the first time. I was looking forward to seeing the work of major Secession artists such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele in their hometown. During our short stay, we saw the Beethoven Frieze at the Secession Building, major works from Klimt at the Lower Belvedere, and the world's largest collection of Schiele's work at the Leopold Museum.

The Secession Building

The Lower Belvedere

The Leopold Museum

The Leopold Museum's current temporary exhibition explores the life and influence of Egon Schiele's companion and muse, Walburga (Wally) Neuzil. I was impressed by how comprehensive, and sensitive an exhibition it was. The exhibition began by providing context about the role of working class women in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century. Life was not easy for many young women and industrialisation drew them to seek work in the capital. When Schiele met Wally she was 16, and working as an artists' model, a profession closely linked with prostitution at that time. Artists were known to use models as a convenient outlet for their sexual drives. Schiele's mentor, Gustav Klimt, had various affairs with his models throughout his life. Although he ensured that his mistresses and children were cared for, he never married or made the relationships public. Egon Schiele was 21 when he met Wally, and at this critical time in the development of his work, they formed a close bond that can be traced through her appearances in his sketches and paintings. Between 1911 and 1915, Wally was Schiele's lover and closest companion. They travelled together, visited each other frequently, and lived together from time to time. Besides modelling for Schiele, Wally also looked after the business and financial side of his work. When in 1912, he was wrongly imprisoned for seducing and kidnapping a minor, she stood by him and visited him in prison.

Portrait of Wally Neuzil (1912)

Egon Schiele [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Self-Portrait with Physalis (1912)

Egon Schiele [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In Schiele's 'Portrait of Wally Neuzil' from 1912, the composition seems to link to his 'Self-Portrait with Physalis', hinting at the relationship that could not be shown publicly. It is clear from Schiele's artwork, and the letters and photographs in the exhibition, that they were in love. Author Paul Vergo was quoted in a BBC article about the exhibition, 'If you look at Schiele’s portraits until that date, there’s a lot of eroticism, but there’s little in terms of true psychological penetration [...] What Portrait of Wally really documents is Schiele waking up to the reality of another person. It’s a real portrait of a real person,' (2015).

Therefore, it is heart-breaking to see the inevitable dissolution of their relationship as Schiele began courting two middle-class sisters who lived across the street from his studio. Wally often accompanied Schiele and the sisters on their outings, serving as a chaperone to keep up the appearance of respectable middle-class courtship. When Schiele settled on one of the sisters, Edith Harms, she wrote him a letter professing her love and asking him to break off his affair with Wally before they could make their relationship public. Schiele broke off his relationship with Wally in a Viennese café, and the scene was recorded almost verbatim by a friend who witnessed the event. Schiele had Wally read a letter in which he proposed that they take a trip together each year. Wally handled the situation with admirably, declining his imprudent offer to maintain the relationship in secret. She left the café and never saw Schiele again. In a painting done around this time, 'Death and the Maiden', Schiele shows a couple (the woman has Wally's distinctive auburn hair) clinging to each other. This has often been interpreted as evidence of Schiele's inability to fully recover from the end of the relationship.

Death and the Maiden (1915)

Egon Schiele [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The exhibition makes a point that there is no way to fully know Schiele and Wally's feeling at the end of their relationship, but it seems that they both may have still loved each other, although they knew that society would not accept their relationship. Additionally, Schiele's choice to marry Edith Harms may have been precipitated by the news he had been drafted for WWI. Wally continued to be active in society, and later joined the war effort as a nurse. Tragically, she died from scarlet fever in Dalmatia at the age of 23. Schiele survived his time in service, but in October 1918, both he and his six-month pregnant wife died of the Spanish flu pandemic.


The Leopold Museum - Wally Neuzil: Her Life with Egon Schiele Bradley, K. 'Wally Neuzil: The secret life of Schiele's muse'. BBC Worldwide, 27 February 2015, available at:

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