The Embrace, 1917 by Egon Schiele

What’s so special about Egon Schiele’s 1917 painting, The Embrace?

  • Starving, clinging lovers entwined
  • When sick and twisted was hot
  • La Bohème on canvas

Click here for the podcast version of this post.

I’ve always thought of Schiele’s The Embrace as his true love painting. Even though it’s two nude figures entwined, there’s no eroticism in this piece. Instead of lust between the subjects, this portrays a tender union. It’s comfort they seek, rather than sex. Best of all, they seem to get it. This couple appear starving in body. They fill the frame with knobby knees, sharp elbows, and pelvic bones. So, it satisfies the viewer’s urge to feed them that they have at least found a way to fill their hearts.

Though well-trained, at the Vienna Academy of Fine Art, Schiele saw himself as an outsider. He drew from the emotional content of his predecessors, Van Gogh and Munch. But nobody painted like Schiele. His emaciated figures convey tormented souls and sickly lives. This makes sense because Schiele wasn’t a happy man. He died at only 28 years old after a short, wretched, yet prolific life. Even with so little time, Schiele painted more than 3,000 paintings and drawings. They’re such distinctive works that Schiele artwork still has instant recognition today.

His frank approach sets Schiele’s work apart. He tells the truth with a fierce directness. This forces viewers into Schiele’s unique perspective. He often painted himself and others naked, sick, and miserable. So, The Embrace breathes a refreshing sigh of comfort and relief into the group. It always makes me happy to see Schiele’s battered, scrawny body enveloped in love here. No painter in history seemed more in need of a hug than the always sad and sick Schiele.

The Embrace, 1917 by Egon Schiele

Schiele was a radical painter. The requisite “Expressionist” label for his work seems a bit watered down. His figures contort and grimace in unexpected positions. This wasn’t how most painters posed subjects. They still don’t. That’s because most people don’t sit or stand in such twisted ways… At least not in ordinary life. They might if they were ill or in pain, though. Schiele’s figures express angst and longing. His self portraits, for instance, epitomize the starving artist archetype.

Bohemians, like Schiele, represented a romantic, artistic lifestyle in the early 1900s. This launched with Puccini’s popular opera La Bohème, first staged in 1896. It’s a familiar story of starving artists as the greatest and most tragic lovers. The only thing they love more than art? Love itself. So, in many ways, the sick and scrawny Schiele hit the art world at the exact right time. He wore pain and lack like badges of honor. There’s an intrinsic appeal to this transparency level. Schiele sprawled his whole self – heart, soul, and naked body – across canvas. This vulnerability gives the viewer a feeling of knowing him. Or at least made his agony seem familiar and unforgettable.

The Embrace epitomizes this. Schiele’s a starving artist in all his self portraits. He was lean like a knitting needle. That’s secondary in this masterpiece, though. It spotlights his lover side. Schiele’s bony frame clings to his love – a barnacle to her boat. Even after an actual barnacle dies, it stays attached. The glue a barnacle secretes works like everlasting love. This parallels the embrace of an archetypal starving artist. They love unlike any other. Schiele puts his whole body into this. It’s so intense a pairing, we see his pelvic bones in detail beneath his straining skin. This man may not be able to feed himself. But he knows how to give his whole being to love.

Best part of this painting lies in the pairing, though. It’s not only about longing – as starving artist stories often are. There’s a reciprocal love here. Though The Embrace may not be an aesthetic beauty, it’s an icon of tenderness. That’s the genius of Schiele. He highlights the raw, ugly, and even embarrassing side of being human. But instead of pushing viewers away and making us feel disgust, these exposures pull us in. We realize that humanity’s open sores are the parts that bond us. Our soft spots and vulnerability can work like the barnacle’s glue. They’re where we may connect – as Schiele does here.

He intertwines himself with his love in this artwork. So they seem to fold into one being. As their bodies curve together, her hair and skin blends into his. The tone of her hand melds into his darker hue around Schiele’s head. It seems to be an enveloping reaction to his whispering in her ear. These gentle gestures give the painting a romantic feeling.

No matter how naked and blatant their bodies, these figures aren’t sexual. This intimacy reads as much more profound. Much like the protagonist of La Bohème, Schiele died far too young. Thanks to his masterpiece The Embrace, we know that, like Mimi, he also experienced a deep and fulfilling love before passing.

The Embrace – FAQs

Why is Egon Schiele an important painter?

Schiele painted in an Expressionist style all his own. He paralleled his peers with emotional renderings. But twisted, emaciated bodies in torment distinguish his work. Schiele laser-focused on taut and tortured figures. His spare paintings contain little to no background to spotlight the figure. He most often portrayed a particular person (or pair) and their pain.

That was Schiele’s special gift. He remains the portrait painter of gnawing, emotional hunger pangs. Despite his short life, dying at only 28 years old, Schiele left an unforgettable legacy. His pained portraits leave an indelible, Expressionist imprint on art history.

Who are the women in Egon Schiele’s paintings?

Valerie (Wally) Neuzil and Edith Harms were Schiele’s two favorite muses. They were also his great loves.

These two women played quite opposite roles in Schiele’s life. Valerie (Wally) Neuzil met him in 1911. She soon became his favorite muse and lover. Wally graces many of his most popular portraits.

Schiele then married Edith Harms in 1915. He claimed to want a more “socially acceptable” wife than his beloved Wally. Edith clings to Schiele in his masterpiece The Embrace. This couple portrait carries a particular poignance. That’s because only a few years later they both died with Spanish flu within three days of each other.

Why was Egon Schiele a controversial painter?

Schiele’s controversial side comes through in his portraits of women. He posed models in seductive positions . That’s why the painter was called out for this eroticism of the female form. But these reactions say more about his contemporaries and culture than Schiele’s work. He painted what he saw.

The portrait painter faced a scarcity of willing models in Vienna of the early 1900s. So, many of his subjects were sex workers. These women appear comfortable in their bodies and bold in sexual power. Schiele’s work gives us rare and intimate glimpses at these women who often lived in the shadows.


Check out these other essays on Portrait Painters

Oesterreichische Galerie, Belvedere Check out this Vienna museum which includes a tremendous collection of Schiele’s work.

Johnson, Ken (21 October 2005). “The Wider, Not Wilder, Egon Schiele”. The New York Times.

Frank Whitford, Expressionist Portraits, Abbeville Press, 1987

Egon Schiele: The Complete Works Catalogue Raisonné of all paintings and drawings by Jane Kallir, 1990, Harry N. Abrams, New York

Diethard Leopold: Egon Schiele. The Great Masters of Art, Hirmer publishers, Munich 2017

Tobias G. Natter (Ed.), The Self-Portrait: From Schiele to Beckmann., exhibition catalog Neue Galerie New York, Prestel, Munich