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Art and Images in Psychiatry
August 2004

Dead Mother I

Author Affiliations
 

JAMES C.HARRISMD

Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2004;61(8):762. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.61.8.762

I shall be the fruit which after its decay will leave behindeternal life; therefore how great must be your joy—to have borne me?1(p87)

—Letterfrom Egon Schiele to his mother, March 31, 1913

On New Year's Eve, 1904, Adolph Schiele, provincial railroad stationmaster and father of Egon Schiele (1890-1918), died in Klosterneuburg, Austria,of tertiary syphilis at age 54 years.1(p9) Fourteen-year-old Egon was devastated by his death.2 Heand his mother and 2 sisters had witnessed his father's rapid decline in theprevious 2 years. They humored him when his hallucinatory guests came fordinner and expressed alarm when he attempted suicide. He had contracted syphilisaround the time of his marriage but refused to admit that he had the disease,would not have it treated, and soon infected his 17-year-old wife.1(p10) Her first 3 pregnancies, all boys,were stillborn; Elvira, the first surviving child, is believed to have diedat age 10 years of meningitis, a complication of late-onset congenital syphilis.Then came Melanie and Egon, the first boy to survive. His mother expressedher gratitude for his birth in her diary. Egon admired his father but foundhis mother to be overprotective and demanding and felt that she did not sufficientlyrevere his father's memory. Wanting him to be an engineer, she strongly objectedto his interest in art despite his obvious talent. She relented and allowedhim to attend art school when he was accepted at the prestigious Vienna Academyof Fine Arts.

Schiele's mentor was Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), a major figure in AustrianExpressionism. In 1909, Schiele and other like-minded students left the Academyof Fine Arts to form the Neukunstgruppe (New Art Group). Schiele's manifestofor the group called for absolute creative self-determination for the individualartist. His early work was radically subjective and both psychologically andsexually intense. He explored the physicality and sexuality of the body inhis male and female nudes. In 1910, he did a series of self-portraits of himselfgrimacing, screaming, or masturbating, using unnatural colors to indicatestates of mind. He portrayed himself as a dancer, a fighter, a person in agony,and a person in bondage to the sexual needs of his body. Young girls appearin lascivious poses, without innocence.3

His Dead Mother series, begun in 1910, wasinitiated following a conversation with the art critic Arthur Roessler. Afterhearing Schiele's complaints about his mother's lack of understanding, heproposed that the artist paint different kinds of motherhood. In doing so,Schiele moved from the expressive physicality and frank realism of his earlywork to symbolic portrayal.

The first of these paintings, Dead Mother I (cover), was painted rapidly on Christmas Eve, 1910.1(p86) Reminiscent of Schiele's earlier Madonna and Child, it shows the mother as a dark, frighteningpresence. A pale, drawn, emaciated, and depressed mother with bony hands holdsan infant. Her mouth, slightly open, droops down; her eyes are lifeless andempty without joy. The infant is pink, orange, and red in contrast to theashen mother, with light gleaming from his eyes. The hands are a mottled red.A white nasal discharge is suggested, similar to snuffles, characteristicof congenital syphilis. The infant, clearly alive, is wrapped in a black shroudpainted to suggest a transparent view into the uterus. He appears to be trappedin a tight space with no obvious means to escape.

Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Austrian. Cover: DeadMother—Tote Mutter (I), 1910. Oil on wood; 32 × 27.5 cm.Collection Leopold, Vienna, Austria. Photograph courtesy of Erich Lessing/ArtResource, NY.

Egon Schiele (1890-1918), Austrian. Cover: DeadMother—Tote Mutter (I), 1910. Oil on wood; 32 × 27.5 cm.Collection Leopold, Vienna, Austria. Photograph courtesy of Erich Lessing/ArtResource, NY.

One year later, Schiele painted Dead Mother II,subtitled The Birth of Genius (Figure 1). Now the mother's eyes are closed, and she is clearlydead. The infant, presumably Schiele, with eyes wide open, pushes to freehimself from the womblike enclosure. The surviving infant comes forth as aremarkable child (a genius). Schiele wrote to his mother, "This is the greatseparation. Without doubt I shall be the greatest, the most beautiful, themost valuable, the purest, the most precious fruit."1(p87) His grandiosity and the physical features that may be consistentwith congenital syphilis, which appear in some of his early self-portraits,have lead Gourguechon4 to speculate about whetherhe was infected. There is no direct evidence of this, and others see onlyhis Expressionist style and personality features related to parental overprotection.

Schiele, The Birth of Genius (Dead Mother II),1911. Oil on wood; 12 5/8 × 10 in (32.1 × 25.4 cm). Presumed destroyed.Photograph courtesy of Galerie St Etienne, New York, NY.

Schiele, The Birth of Genius (Dead Mother II),1911. Oil on wood; 12 5/8 × 10 in (32.1 × 25.4 cm). Presumed destroyed.Photograph courtesy of Galerie St Etienne, New York, NY.

There is no evidence of contact between Sigmund Freud and Shiele,5 although they lived in Vienna during the same years.Freud's interest was in ancient art and the sublimation of emotions into sociallyvalued creations. Schiele's art, in contrast, aimed at the direct expressionof emotion without psychological censorship.5 Moreover,Freud emphasized the conflict between father and son, whereas Schiele dealtwith the establishment of freedom from the overprotective, demanding, andcontrolling mother.

References
1.
Comini  A Egon Schiele: Portraits.  Berkeley University of California Press1974;
2.
Kallir  J Egon Schiele: Life and Work.  New York, NY Harry N Abrams Inc2003;
3.
Hobhouse  J Nudes: the vision of Egon Schiele.  Connoisseur. 1984;240100- 109Google Scholar
4.
Gourguechon  P The Dead Mother series of Egon Schiele: psychoanalyticuse of an artist's image.  Lecture presented at: Loyola University Chicago March 27, 2004 Chicago, Ill
5.
Walrod  ST Egon Schiele: A Psychobiography [PhD dissertation].  Berkeley California School of Professional Psychology1978;
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